Long-time East Rockaway resident Louis DeVivo can still recall the moment he came up with the idea to establish the Bay Park Victory Garden.
“I’m sitting in my kitchen, and a lightbulb goes off in my head with a vision of this garden,” he recounted. “I looked up to the ceiling and said, ‘Really, God?’”
The idea came as a way to honor his stepfather, the late Joseph Levy, a World War II veteran, and blossomed into an effort to unite the community at a difficult time. During World War II, vegetable gardens proliferated around the U.S. to support the increasing number of impoverished families.
Now, as the coronairus pandemic continues, Long Island communities are experiencing similar financial challenges and increasing food insecurity. According to Community Solidarity, a New York-based organization that distributes groceries weekly to those in need, about 283,700 people will suffer from hunger on Long Island at some point this year.
DeVivo created the garden, at 28 North Blvd. in Bay Park, to also serve as a message of gratitude for front-line workers, health care professionals and first responders.
DeVivo ex-plained that for the first time in his life, he had the means to bring his goal to fruition: a dream to honor the man who raised him, revere America’s veterans and help those who struggle in his community.
He moved from Brooklyn to East Rockaway in 1988 with his four children. His daughter Melissa is now expecting her first child, another source of inspiration to the grandfather-to-be.
“My stepfather was my hero,” DeVivo said, his voice cracking with emotion. “He would tell me stories of post-World War II victory gardens. We won the war, but lives were lost. Now, when I watch TV and see countless, nameless people around the world in hunger, I feel a need to help.”
DeVivo began planting in the garden earlier this year, and gained support from his neighbors as they walked their dogs, jogged past and drove by. The garden became a community project. “People started offering to help, and I thought to myself, ‘I am supposed to be here,’” DeVivo said.
The garden now has about 10 volunteers who plant vegetables, fruits, flowers and herbs. It officially opened on June 13, and plans were in place to display its first farm stand on June 20 with lettuce and herbs.
Anyone from the community is encouraged to stop by and grab some freshly grown crops, free of charge, and many have since it opened. Those who come have their pick, first come, first served. Volunteers will also deliver vegetables to those who are homebound, making “the garden’s fruits of labor available to everyone in the neighborhood,” volunteer Michael Jacobson said.
Like DeVivo, volunteer Beth Cooney also drew parallels to World War II.
“The recession we are experiencing during the pandemic is similar to the poverty after World War II,” she said. “This garden is an opportunity to bring the community together; watching something grow, mature and come back to life is healthy for the soul.”
The garden needs supply donations, including tomato cages, five-gallon buckets, peat moss and several vegetables listed on the dry-erase board near its entrance. Community members are urged to bring donations and support the cause.
There will be an official ribbon-cutting ceremony sometime in the future when social-distancing regulations ease up. For now, volunteers and community members will continue to make DeVivo’s dream come true, bringing honor to both his personal hero and the thousands of war heroes living in America.
“That type of spirit and will to help mankind more than certainly exists within people, and you can see it,” DeVivo said. “This garden shows that in times of difficulty comes personal growth as human beings. Here we grow again.”