Deep in the heart of Manhattan, New York's concrete jungle is probably the least suitable place to start a garden. Combine the location with the fact that the person planning the garden had lived in New York City his whole life and had never had a garden, and you wouldn't expect a high degree of success. But Sean Collard and the hotel team members at the Hilton Garden Inn Times Square were up for the challenge. "Actually we were were a little nervous when we decided to join the Grow a School Garden Program and look for a local school to partner with and grow gardens," says Collard. "The only grass I saw growing up was in Central Park or on a ball field," he says. "I had no gardening experience."
Collard grew up in Greenwich Village and married a "girl from Brooklyn." Now they live in Brooklyn with four kids in a Co-op apartment. They have no gardens and no lawn. "The only gardening work we do is helping the other Co-op members once a year on cleanup day," says Collard. But he does have a strong sense of volunteerism. "Even as a kid my family would volunteer in the local community," he says.
Collard has been in the hospitality business for 19 years. He feels like the business and his sense of volunteerism are a good match. "Inherent in the hospitality business is caring," he says. "We care about the well-being of our guests, and that's easily extended to caring about our local community."
The Hilton Garden Inn Grow a School Garden program has been in existence for four years. Through a relationship with the National Gardening Association (NGA), HGI properties have access to specially designed garden kits for schools, gardening information, and free consultation with NGA's Senior Horticulturist and HGI's Chief Gardening Officer Consultant, Charlie Nardozzi.
According to Collard, hotel manager of the Hilton Garden Inn Times Square in New York City, "The National Gardening Association helped us identify P.S. 126 in Chinatown as a possible partner school. Because there was already a YMCA After-School program at the school, we thought it would be the best place to create a gardening club. Both Matt and Simone, the science and after-school program teachers, were excited about the idea of gardening with the kids as some ot their students had never seen a garden. While gardening may not be very unusual for kids in more rural locations, for these kids in lower Manhattan, it was unique.
"The combination of the students' enthusiasm, the teachers'experience of what would work in the program, and the support from NGA all made for a successful event," says Collard.
To celebrate National Garden Month 2006, a program of NGA that is celebrated each April, Hilton Garden Inns across the country had participated in ″Veggie Taco Day.″ The HGI Times Square, like other HGI hotels, purchased the NGA Indoor Gardening Kit which was created especially for the HGI community outreach program, and planned their first activity with the students.
On a sunny Friday afternoon in late April, Collard, hotel team members from the HGI Times Square, along with Hilton Garden Inn brand team members Jim Cone (director of marketing) and Agnes Sibal (senior manager of brand communications) joined Charlie Nardozzi and the kids, teachers, and administrators in sowing seeds indoors to be transplanted outdoors later in spring. Of course, it wouldn't be a New York event without media coverage. The New York Daily News attended the event, and a videographer from NGA recorded the children gardening.
So how did it go for Collard and the kids? "The after-school program consists of a diverse group of kids from various backgrounds," says Collard. "It was exciting for me and the kids to plant the seeds and get the garden started. The enthusiasm and excitement on the kids' faces was heartwarming and memorable."
Collard and his HGI hotel team returned to the school in June to see the fruits of their planting in April. "It was amazing how much everything grew. Our next step is to plant outdoors, so we got permission from the school to build some raised bed planters in a grassy area along the side of the building.As with gardening, I'm not much of a carpenter, so I enlisted the HGI Times Square hotel engineer to help." The teachers, HGI team, and kids transplanted many of the vegetables they had started indoors in April. The HGI hotel team plans to help maintain the gardens while the kids are on summer break.
"I know this program is having an impact," say Collard. "Two girls in the program asked me if there was something they could grow in their apartments this summer while they were away from school. While not all the kids will be influenced by gardening, if we can reach just one child and change his or her thinking about plants, the environment, and healthy eating, then the program is a success. Who knows, we might get some kids interested in agriculture, horticulture, teaching, or even working in the hospitality business someday. I'm hoping this program outlives my tenure at HGI, and that gardening becomes a tradition at the Chinatown YMCA After-School Program at P.S. 126 in New York City.″