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South Huntington farm now gives special ed. students room to grow

Siblings Gina and Larry Foglia near one of

Siblings Gina and Larry Foglia near one of their family's Mimosa trees on the Meadowbrook Parkway. Credit: Nicole Horton

Gina Foglia can still recall riding in the backseat of her parents’ silver Plymouth station wagon and gazing at the Mimosa trees that used to line the Meadowbrook and Wantagh parkways.

“There are our trees!” she would say, as the brilliant pink blooms whipped past her window.

Foglia’s family left an imprint on the Long Island landscape in the late 1950s when her parents sold 200 trees from their agricultural and horticultural side business — then in North Bellmore — to the state for planting along the two Long Island parkways.

“There are trees in many places that my parents have donated or sold, so one can see them in a lot of different places.” said Foglia, of Boston. “Going back to the trees, that’s the family connection. As children, seeing them lining the parkway . . . we were so proud of that.”

Foglia and her brother, Larry, of South Huntington, recently sold 6.5 acres of their parents’ former home and farm in South Huntington to the ELIJA Foundation, a Levittown-based nonprofit and school that serves children and young adults with autism spectrum disorders.

The sale was a bittersweet parting, but Larry Foglia said they were happy to see the land preserved and used for special education purposes.

“The alternative was to sell it to developers to put up houses,” Larry Foglia said. “The concept of preserving land is very important . . . We modified our asking price to make it happen with ELIJA because it was that important to us.”

Now it’s ELIJA students who grow the organic produce, which is then sold through a Community Supported Agriculture program to customers in the region, said Debora Thivierge, executive director for ELIJA, which is an acronym for Empowering Long Island’s Journey Through Autism.

“It gives them a sense of purpose,” she said of ELIJA’s students. “Doing this kind of work connects them to nature, it connects them to the community, it connects them to the idea of eating healthy and protecting the environment.”

ELIJA officials said they will continue using the same sustainable farming practices used by the Foglia family, and are working with the county to permanently preserve part of the land so it can never be developed.

“We are trying to retain the meaning of their family farm and what it’s done in the past 50 years,” Thivierge said. “We’re trying to extend what the family’s vision was.”

The Foglia family has produced trees that have since been planted across Long Island — including 40 dogwoods at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington.

Larry Foglia, and his wife, Heather Forest, continue to work on the property, mentoring ELIJA staff on how to work the land.

The Foglia family once lived on farmland in North Bellmore, and later on the South Huntington parcel that ELIJA now owns. Between the two locations they grew cut flowers, perennials and various types of trees, Larry Foglia said.

The siblings’ parents, Guido and Dinah Foglia, both deceased, worked at Queens College, he as a professor, she in administration, but selling what they grew helped supplement the family’s income and instilled values that spanned multiple generations, Larry Foglia said.

As chairman of the Queens College Physical Education Department, Guido Foglia helped launch the school’s now-defunct Institute for Exceptional Children, which helped get special needs students involved in athletics, Larry Foglia said.

As children, Larry and Gina Foglia volunteered at the institute with special needs students every weekend for eight years.

That experience further influenced their decision to sell the land to ELIJA, Larry Foglia said.

“We have this space in our hearts for people who have to face life with more difficulties than most people,” he said. “So it was important for us to honor different legacies. The legacies of growing plants, what we learned about ourselves and about life from growing plants, and also being able to pass those experiences on to people who have such difficulties was a very gestalt kind of experience for us.”

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