Holmdel High seniors awarded for volunteer work

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By Kelly Guiliano
Staff Writer

Four Holmdel High School seniors were recognized for their community service efforts when they were the first group to receive the Caring Award from the Monmouth County Guidance Directors Association.

This is an annual honor normally given to one senior from each high school in Monmouth County. “Girls Giving Greens” was recognized as a driving force for positive impact within the community – an effort the girls say has brought them closer than ever.

The ceremony, which was held at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft on March 26, recognized 34 students throughout Monmouth County for their standout contributions to society.

The four Holmdel students –Wallis Toscarelli, Lexi Vervoordt, Julia Hamwi and Gabrielle Cipriana –became the first group to be honored.

Seniors and close-knit friends, the Holmdel natives cultivated a backyard garden and have been growing organic produce to donate to Mary’s Place by the Sea, a respite home in Ocean Grove for women living with cancer.

“We were so honored and grateful that people recognized our effort. Overall, we’re happy to have a connection with Mary’s Place and enjoy watching it flourish,” Toscarelli said.

According to Cipriano, the four friends began growing organic food after a car ride past a farmers’ market sparked their initial interest.

“A car ride suddenly turned into a full-scale planning project. We all love eating food that is natural and locally sourced. We thought to ourselves, we could start a garden. Why couldn’t we? Julia already had a plot reserved at the Holmdel community garden. And although we had no idea about the logistics of it all, we just decided to go for it,” Cipriano said.

Always having been passionate about volunteer work, the girls knew they wanted to explore new ways to help the community. In this case, they were determined to learn an entirely new craft – gardening.

With a little research and a lot of help from their parents, the girls were able to begin cultivating a harvest.

“When we garden, we use only organic seeds. To enhance the produce, we use a home-made compost, which contains eggshells and various fruit peels. This, in turn, helps create very healthy soil,” Hamwi said.

When deciding where to donate the fruits of their labor, the girls quickly turned their minds to Mary’s Place by the Sea – a free holistic getaway for women battling cancer.

Mary’s Place, named after the Holy Mother, acts as a quiet place of refuge for those disheartened with the everyday burdens that come from having cancer. Here, women mentally recharge while enjoying nutritional classes, yoga, meditation, massage and vegan meals.

“Healthy eating is right in alignment with the Mary’s Place mission – healing the body, mind and soul. This is done through the mind/body connection,” Vice President of Mary’s Place Maria McKeon said.”Nurturing these areas helps with the emotional component of cancer.”

According to the American Cancer Association, various studies suggest there is a higher nutrient content in organically grown food. Similarly, organic produce eliminates the exposure to pesticides and other harmful chemicals used to genetically modify certain fruits and vegetables.

“We used to leave a cooler outside of the community garden, in case other gardeners wanted to donate their surplus harvest to our effort with Mary’s Place,” Cipriani said.

Because Mary’s Place is a free sanctuary for women, donations are crucial to keeping the establishment up and running. As a result of the voluntary efforts seen by Girls Giving Greens, Mary’s place saved on the cost it would need to pay out of pocket for otherwise expensive organic ingredients.

“Julia, Lexi and I are all on the board for St. Catherine’s Church in Holmdel. We get a lot of our volunteering ideas from our youth group. Originally, this is where we derived a passion for service. The four of us, including Wallis, we are also all on National Honor Society,” Cipriani said.

During a recent discussion with the seniors, the girls said they felt a sense of fulfillment knowing four teenagers can make a difference in the world.

“In 2016, we attended a religious retreat with our church youth group called ‘Splash.’ One year, we created a rosary garden at Church of the Precious Blood. It was a very serene layout and ultimately helped us learn about gardening. There were stepping stones around the garden, in place of rosary beads, that we put down. These slates allowed you to pray as you walked through the garden. We used pavers and filled the area with flowers. It was this gardening experience that also struck an interest within us,” Cipriani said.

Similar to Girls Giving Greens, Mary’s Place also originates with roots in embedded in humble beginnings – after an unsuspecting trip to the gym led to the installation of a master plan.

“Michelle, the President of Mary’s Place, and I were working out at the gym,” McKeon said. “Suddenly, she turned to me with this idea of a sanctuary for women.  She asked me if this is something I would do with her – I said yes. So while we were running on treadmills, we were mapping out our future.”

“Naively, we didn’t know the first thing about starting a non-profit. We Googled it,” McKeon laughed.

Nine years later, Mary’s Place has opened its doors to more than 8,000 women from across the country – an experience which aims to abolish the stigma associated with having cancer.

“Being a part of your community allows you to be more perceptive on what other people are going through in this world,” Cipriani said.

The cash prize won by Girls Giving Greens that was associated with the Caring Award also was donated back to Mary’s Place by the Sea.

“Ask, believe, receive: That is our mantra,” McKeon said. “It is really wonderful to see how the community sparked an interest in these young women.”