Jemar, Jessica Marie and Jebrell, the children of the late teacher Marites Siervo, water a tree planted in memory of their mother.
Participants gathered for the Arbor Day event on Friday morning.
riverside academy senior vonDaft Hardgrove shoveled earth over the roots of a zelkova tree planted in memory of a late principal who guided his school through difficult times – and vowed to continue her legacy of community service throughout his life.
A crowd of city officials, school administrators, students like Hardgrove and community members gathered outside the Hallock Ave Transitional School on Friday morning. 103 teamed up to plant the Zelkova and a budding Japanese lavender not only in celebration of Arbor Day but in honor of two recently graduated educators, former principal Wanda Gibbs and chemistry teacher Marites Siervo.
Riverside Director Derek Stephenson: “As these trees grow, so do our hearts.”
“We will never forget her,” said Riverside director Derek Stephenson of Gibbs and Siervo. “When these trees grow, they also grow in our hearts.”
Those gathered for the ceremony agreed that the services provided by the seedlings — from producing oxygen to filtering water to shadowing students, passers-by and sidewalks — reflected the type of care Gibbs and Siervo Riverside, the latter Transitional schools in New Haven, provide a destination for students struggling in traditional classrooms, as well as the broader New Haven community.
Read about Wanda Gibbs, who grew up in New Haven and attended New Haven Public Schools (NHP) system for years, including in her capacity as Riverside director from 1994, here. She died of cancer last July at the age of 70.
Gibbs’ family sat alongside the children and husband of Marites Siervo, a beloved Riverside chemistry teacher who died in June 2020 in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, as attendees took turns remembering both educators on Friday.
“Siervo, affectionately known as Tess, was more than a teacher — she was a friend, a family member and a phenomenal cook,” Stephenson said. He recalled how Siervo would often cook delicious Filipino dishes to share with her students and colleagues.
Gibbs, on the other hand, was a “tough New Havens who shielded their students,” just like them “City tree that provides shade,” Stephen analogized. “She has never wavered in her service to the Riverside community,” he said, and neither would the newly formed Zelkova.
When it comes to tree planting, Mayor Justin Elicker (pictured below) said: “The most important thing is to find someone to take care of this tree.”
“If you don’t take care of it, it won’t survive. It’s such a metaphor for the work you’re all doing here – you’re all people in our community focused on mentoring young people so they can grow, thrive and reach their full potential.”
The trees were funded by the Urban Resources Initiative (URI) – read more about this non-profit environmental organization here. Renters, homeowners and businesses can request free trees URI by calling 203-432-6189 as long as they are willing to water the trees for the first three years.
Riverside students will work together to care for the two Japanese toddler trees during this vulnerable time.
On Friday, a group of students left their biology class to join ceremony attendees and parks department staff to cover the roots of the two trees with fresh soil, mulch and wood shavings before watering both liberally.
Jemar, Jessica Marie and Jebrell Siervo.
Siervo’s 23-year-old daughter, Jessica Marie, while watching the planting with her two brothers Jembrell, 17, and Jemar, 29, told the Independent that the event reminded her how “Even during our regular family shopping trips, my mom would always get candy for her students.”
“I had always known that she was personable and that people liked her. But the fact that people are still thinking about her, the fact that you can make a difference like that is eye-opening.”
Relatives and friends of the late Wanda Gibbs take a picture of a plaque commemorating the late Headmistress made by members of the Riverside community.
Nearby, Claudette Robinson Thorpe, a Riverside social worker, was chatting with her former colleague and another lifelong friend of Wanda Gibbs, Pamela Monk Kelley, about Gibbs’ role in introducing an open, hands-on approach to the alternative school.
“This school is nothing without its legacy making it a reality,” said Thorpe. “We all have to move on and find replacements, but she will always be the backbone of this school.”
Meanwhile Thorpe said: “I can’t wait to see the flowers bloom outside the school windows this spring.
D’Shawn Coleman andDaph Hardgrove are clearing chairs from the event to do justice to their community – and inspire another student to join in.
Hardgrove and his colleague, 15-year-old D’Shawn Coleman, said they never met Gibbs or Siervo.
But after hearing that family and friends share “Stories about stories,” said Coleman, “It felt like I met her — I got a little teary-eyed.”
He said he was “grateful” for the chance to participate in tree planting as he prepares for graduation “It’s like I have a special opportunity to make my mark at school.”
He said that Siervo and Gibbs “gave us the chance to live on in their name just by being part of this school. This school made me the person I am today. And I will do my best to make my own mark and leave my name positive.
Hardgrove and Coleman were then spotted NHP Office for Youth, Family & Community Supervisor Kermit Carolina collects folding chairs from the day’s event.
“Hey, hey, stop it, we’ve got these chairs, we’ve got them!” Hardgrove assured him. He stacked the chairs on either armrest and instructed the teachers, who were cleaning up: “Get some rest or whatever.”