Blair students are vital volunteers for non-profit's garden

Academy's 5th Annual Day of Service

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  • Students and faculty from Blair Academy plant gardens at Project Self-Sufficiency Photos by Laurie Gordon

  • Head of School Chris Fortunato (back right) is joined by a staff member and students Maruta Sipols (front left) and Jack Weber (back left) during the Blair Day of Service at Project Self-Sufficiency.

By Laurie Gordon

— Over 100 students from Blair Academy rolled up their sleeves and got on their knees to mulch, plant and prepare gardens last Friday as part of the 5th Annual Blair Day of Service at Project Self-Sufficiency.

Blair Academy students assisted community volunteers with planting vegetables, potting flowers, painting picnic tables, spreading mulch, and working on other maintenance projects, and by the end of the day, nine community gardens had been planted and over 100 pots of tomato plants and cumber plants, as well as 50 pots of flowers were distributed around the campus. The gardens will provide fresh vegetables to the agency’s low-income clientele and developmentally disabled adults selected by SCARC and Abilities of Northwest Jersey. Volunteers will care for the gardens well into the autumn.

Blair Academy's Head of School for the past five years has been Chris Fortunato. During his tenure, he's helped develop programs and services that don't just advance students academic growth, but foster their personal growth as well.

The former dean of students at Providence College and, afterwards, at the Harvard Kennedy School, Fortunato said, “Throughout my career, I've seen the importance of students becoming a part of not just their campus, but the community as well. The Day of Service is a great way to not only involve the students in the community, but make them an important part of it by giving of their time and skills.”

He said that on the Blair Day of Service, students and faculty fan out to 18 to 20 sites to volunteer within about an hour radius of the school. Fortunato didn't just supervise or delegate: he got right in there with the students, got dirty and mulched, dug and planted right beside them.

Maruta Sipols, of Blairstown, is a student at Blair.

“This is a great opportunity to expand out into our community and do something really helpful and important,” she said.

Helpful and important may be understatements.

“The help from Blair is so incredible,” said Project Self-Sufficiency's Executive Director Deborah Berry-Toon. “They have bee coming to plant the gardens for the past five years, and we look at it as a wonderful tradition, the beginning of the summer season and even call it 'Blair Day.'”

She added, “It's a wonderful melding of the students and the community and the vegetables produced by the community gardens will help to alleviate the food insecurity faced by many Sussex County residents during the summer months.”

This was Jack Weber's first time volunteering at this event. The Blair freshman, who lives on campus and hails from Wayne, Pennsylvania said, “Living on campus, I don't feel like I do much for the community. This is a chance to do something and today I am planting marigolds.”

Berry-Toon wanted the students to see just what they were creating. So, this year, Project Self-Sufficiency arranged a slide show with photos of what the bountiful gardens look like in the summer.

Project Self-Sufficiency is celebrating its 30th year of improving the lives of low-income families residing in northwestern New Jersey. The agency’s mission is to provide a broad spectrum of holistic, respectful, and comprehensive services enabling low-income single parents, teen parents, two-parent families, and displaced homemakers to improve their lives and the lives of their children through the achievement of personal and economic self-sufficiency and family stability. Since 1986 Project Self-Sufficiency has served more than 25,000 families.

For more information, visit or call 973-940-3500 or 844-807-3500.

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