Mitzvah Day for the Times Team was certainly a special experience, on a variety of levels. Our team wholly embraced the principles of this year’s theme of interfaith and comprised both Jewish and non-Jewish volunteers.
We also went over and above our role as being simply a media outlet and just reporting on the day, by literally getting our hands dirty for a good cause and providing something which would profoundly affect our beneficiary, Oak Lodge School in East Finchley.
Our involvement in the project also enabled us to spread the positive message of Mitzvah Day to the Mill Hill Garden Centre, which donated all the plants and equipment, and manager Matthew Cooke said he would be really keen to get involved again next year.
Before undertaking the project, I was informed that the school had kept the garden locked, as it was deemed “unsafe” for the special needs pupils. Upon our arrival on Mitzvah Day, the garden was covered in weeds and leaves and there were only a few plants scattered around the 50ft plot. There was also a pond which was filled with toxic algae, and another which, as it was uncovered, would pose a health and safety risk to the children.
Over the duration of six hours, our team got to work, digging out all the weeds and clearing the leaves. We then prepared the ground by digging it over and laying down membrane and bark chippings, before planting colourful shrubs, border plants and evergreens. The pond that was once held only toxic algae was cleared and filled with soil. Instead we planted an apple tree and colourful plants. With the other pond we cut cage meshing and placed this over the water, to make it safe for the children. Around the pond we planted a variety of grasses and placed a bench into the ground, so that the children could have somewhere safe to sit. We also installed a bird table, to encourage wildlife into the garden.
Although none of us profess to be expert gardeners, we certainly put plenty of effort and dedication into making the garden a cherished place for the youngsters to go during break times.
The next day I contacted the school to ask what the reaction had been to the revamped garden. Assistant headteacher Teresa Ellis wrote a wonderful email, in which she told me how she had taken an autistic boy up to the garden that very morning. She told me he had never spoken to her before, but when he saw the garden he pointed and said, “apple tree”. For all of us, this made our Mitzvah Day efforts so very worthwhile.