“It’s heaven,” exclaimed Natalie Kramer when the twinkling white and blue lights began to dance for the first time in our Topiary Garden.
Kramer is one of four students who have been working since September assisting Longwood Staff members on the building and installation of the Gardens’ newest holiday light display. On a mild November afternoon the students put the finishing touches on their work, connecting cords and setting the lights to the correct display mode.
The four students from Unionville High School are part of the Chester County Intermediate Unit’s (CCIU) Discover Program, which offers students ages 16–21 an integration of classroom and pre-vocational instruction with on-the-job training. The primary goal of this program is to prepare students for success in the workplace and for independent living.
Longwood has been working with the Discover Program since it was founded in 1996, and we were one of the program’s four inaugural community partners. Today, more than 200 community partners around Chester County welcome the more than 300 students enrolled in the program.
Twice a week, in the fall and spring semesters, students come to the Gardens accompanied by their job coaches and work in a variety of departments, including Horticulture, Education, and Guest Services. Students have planted bulbs, organized supplies, and readied test tubes for our research team, among many other tasks.
Since September, Unionville High School students Jack Badeaux, Natalie Kramer, Brooke Ladd, and Rebecca Pancoast have been working with Longwood Horticulturist Darren Rutledge and his team on the preparation of a new light display for A Longwood Christmas. The display is housed in the Topiary Garden and features more than 200 pieces of rebar wrapped with programmable blue and white lights. The finished display will be animated to resemble falling snowflakes.
The students took the lead in wrapping and securing the lights around the various sizes of rebar, ensuring there was an equal mix of blue and white lights for the display. The work required organization and patience, making sure the lights were securely attached to the rebar to keep them from sliding down.
Pride in a job well done. Front from left: Natalie Kramer, Brooke Ladd, Jack Badeaux, Rebecca Pancoast, Unionville High School Principal James Conley; Second row from left: Longwood’s Cheryl Duncan, Horticulturist Darren Rutledge, Brianna Read, Collin Hadsell, Nathan Stewart, CCIU Vocational Specialist Chris Haas, and Job Coach Donna Crymes. Back Row: Paul Palazzi, Job Coach Anne Lolli, Unionville High School Life Skills Support Teacher Laura Berkeihiser and Longwood Gardens Section Gardener and Outdoor Christmas Lighting Committee Chair Troy Sellers.
“It was an extremely big job,” explains Rutledge, “and the kids embraced the challenge and chipped away at it with determination each time they came.”
“The coolest part of this whole project, for me, was seeing how excited the kids were when it came time to install the display,” said Rutledge.
Often, due to schedules and time constraints, the students work on essential parts of many projects, but rarely a single project from start to finish. In this case, they got to see the project to fruition—a display that an estimated 400,000 guests to A Longwood Christmas will also get to see and enjoy.
“Today was especially special,” explained Laura Berkeihiser, Life Skills Support Teacher at Unionville High School, “as it's the first time they have been given the opportunity to install lights,” she said. “I'm so grateful to Longwood, they have had such an incredible and long relationship with the Discover Program. I'm a strong believer in building a community around people with disabilities. This relationship tugs at my heart and makes me feel really proud of where we live,” Berkeihiser said.
“They put a lot of time and effort into getting all the lights ready,” Rutledge explained, “and for them to see all of their hard work pay off was awesome.”
Or perhaps, a little bit of heaven.
Photos by Morgan Horell.