WESTFIELD, NJ — If you pass by the First Congregational Church of Westfield on Elmer Street, you may notice a new sensory garden located on both sides of the steps leading to Westfield Cooperative Nursery School (WCNS).

This project was conceived and designed by Fiona Gillespie, a Cadette Girl Scout from Westfield Troop 40056. For her efforts, she has received the prestigious Silver Award, the highest award given to Cadette Girl Scouts.  Gillespie is 13 and an eighth-grade student at Edison Intermediate School.

The three key requirements for the Girl Scout Silver Award are that the project has to be sustainable, take at least 50 hours to complete and must fill a need in the community.

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Gillespie attended WCNS.

“I wanted to do something for my preschool because I loved going there,” she said.  “The preschool has a sunny place in the front which I thought would be a perfect place for my garden.”

With such an ambitious project, there were many challenges. Gillespie had to redesign her plans a couple of times to maximize space, she said, and she had to raise money to cover the costs of the project and some of the garden materials, which were more expensive than she initially thought.  She was awarded a grant from the Garden Club of New Jersey and she said she’s also thankful to local merchants Bartell’s, Amberg’s, Westfield Lumber and M&N Boychuk Stone for the donations and discounts they gave her.

Gillespie found perennial plants that bloom at different times of the year to fit into her sensory theme, including strawberries and lambs ear.  She had to do the planting before it was too hot in the summer, she explained, and she spent 15 hours working in just one weekend.  Her entire project took a total of 60 hours—what’s considered to be a year’s worth of dedication.

Gillespie hopes that the preschoolers at WCNS will be able to explore using their senses in the garden and learn descriptive adjectives for the feel of the plants, their colors, shapes and smells.  She also created lesson plans for co-op teachers to use to guide the childrens’ sensory garden experiences.

Suzanne Pinto, director of WCNS, is pleased with the project for co-op students.

“The garden serves as an interactive, hands-on tool that we will utilize to supplement our lessons about good nutrition,” she said. “Additionally, we will be using the garden to explore our senses with the children and they will learn great science lessons about how plants grow and garden maintenance.”

Pinto was also impressed with Gillespie’s hard work and endeavor and said that Gillespie was wonderful to work with and diligent from beginning to end.  She said that the entire school and the First Congregational Church community will benefit from sharing the sensory garden.

Even though the sensory garden is fully sustainable, Gillespie told The Alternative Press that, after putting so much effort into her Cadette Silver Award, she plans to visit the garden now and then just to check on it.