To earn her Girl Scout Gold Award, Sara Lombardi, 16, of Malverne, raised more than $1,000 to plant a tulip garden as a tribute to the St. Francis Hospital staff in Roslyn. The staff includes her mother, Josephine Lombardi, a physician assistant. Credit: Johnny Milano

She wanted to do something nice to thank those who had fought something so terrible. And to remember and reflect on the lives lost to something so terrible.

So when Sara Lombardi, 16, of Malverne, learned about victory gardens in social studies class last spring at Valley Stream North High School amid the coronavirus pandemic, it suddenly all made sense.

She'd take the idea behind victory gardens and, as the basis of her Gold Award project for the Girl Scouts, plant a commemorative garden to honor those on the front lines — and those lost on the front lines — in the war on COVID-19.

Her mother, Josephine Lombardi, is a physician assistant in the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn. Operated by Catholic Health Services, St. Francis is the only specialty designated cardiac center in New York State, and at one point, officials said, more than 80% of its patients were infected with COVID-19. Sara Lombardi had previously worked as a volunteer at the hospital. She knew the work, the hours the staff put in. She knew their dedication.

And she knew the perils its patients faced, even without COVID.

"I had volunteered there in 2019," Sara Lombardi said of St. Francis. "It was an amazing experience. But with COVID, St. Francis, they really took the brunt of it. Most of the hospital was dedicated to treating COVID patients for a very long time — especially back in March, April, May. I thought this would be an amazing place to start this, to start a commemorative garden like this."

So she met with hospital officials and found a way to make it happen.

A high school senior, who next fall will attend Misericordia University in Dallas, Pennsylvania, Sara Lombardi is a member of Girl Scout Troop 2600. The goal of any Gold Award project is community service, a project with an educational aspect. Part of this project, she said, will be an outreach program to local libraries, elementary schools and younger Girl Scouts, on "the importance of sacrifice and the importance of gratitude and empathy" for those who go above and beyond.

Victory gardens, also called war gardens or food gardens, began in the United States during World War I, but reached their zenith during World War II.

One of the richest men in America, timberman Charles Lathrop Pack, organized the National War Garden Commission in Washington, D.C., in 1917 — spawning a campaign that offered promotions like "Sow the Seeds of Victory" while urging Americans to plant gardens to support the war effort and provide supplemental produce. An offshoot of the movement was the Federal Bureau of Education initiative called the U.S. School Garden Army — or USSGA — to "mobilize children" as so-called "soldiers of the soil."

It is generally believed that George Washington Carver, born into slavery in Missouri and later a famed botanist at the Tuskegee Institute, was an early proponent of victory gardens. Later, a pamphlet he wrote on the subject, labeled them victory gardens.

During the worldwide flu pandemic in 1918, more than 5.2 million Americans planted such gardens. In World War II, the number rose to about 20 million and, according to the History Channel, private residential war gardens or victory gardens accounted for about 40% of all fresh produce grown in the United States in 1944.

What Sara had in mind was something more decorative, commemorative, and she and her father, Mark, came up with the idea to call it a "Gratitude Garden."

St. Francis spokeswoman Rosemary Gomez said that after hospital officials gave the go-ahead, Sara began a grassroots campaign that raised more than $1,000 to fund the garden outside the pavilion housing the DeMatteis Center for Cardiac Research and Education. A little more than a week ago, Sara helped plant dozens of tulips at the site. The flowers, which bloom annually, will anchor a garden featuring rose bushes and other plantings, and there's a plaque to honor the front line health care workers who dedicated themselves to battling COVID-19.

And to recall those who lost their lives to the devastating virus.

"It's outside the pavilion, where people in waiting areas can look out on it, where patients can see it, their families, the hospital workers," Gomez said.

Josephine Lombardi said her daughter "drew that parallel, between soldiers and health care workers during COVID, people who, instead of staying home went to work to do what they could do, and she's creating an education program to help teach people the importance of being grateful and that's important, I think."

"I wanted something that would bloom every spring, right around the time that these doctors and nurses were first fighting COVID, so that it would be a reminder of what they'd done," Sara Lombardi said. "Frontline health care workers, front line essential workers, didn't do actual fighting like the soldiers honored by victory gardens did, but they did work really hard — and I think this honors them. And I think it honors the patients, as well, and will remind everyone of what happened."

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