VTEA member Karyn Montgomery at the Angel Garden at Virtua Hospital where her triplets are remembered.

Few professions combine the personal and the professional the way education does. To truly be an effective educator and to reach and teach children, regardless of job title, NJEA members share of themselves every day. It’s that relationship, built on trust and mutual respect, that leads to vibrant classrooms, safe school buses, happy lunch rooms, and consideration in the hallways.

For Voorhees Township Education Association (VTEA) member Karyn Montgomery, sharing her pain has also enabled her to facilitate joy and peace for others.

In February 2011, Montgomery and her husband lost their triplet sons. To help them through this difficult, heartbreaking time, they were given the name of a neo-natal nurse at Virtua Hospital in Voorhees named Ann Coyle who facilitated a grief group for parents who had lost babies. The group met twice a month to talk about their children and what they were experiencing as they navigated the grief process.

Coyle was working to establish an Angel Garden at Virtua. This was a space where grieving parents could see their children’s names inscribed upon a wall and have a peaceful, beautiful space to think of them.

In October 2012, the garden became a reality and Coyle organized a dedication ceremony with poems, heartfelt speeches from some of the doctors and the release of butterflies.

“I can’t begin to tell you what it means to us to see our boys’ names on that wall,” Montgomery said. “To be able to visit and leave flowers or balloons after I’ve had a rough day is very meaningful. There is an angel statue holding a baby, and trees, benches, and rocking chairs throughout the space. It’s a wonderful, serene space for anyone to go and regroup or enjoy some peace and quiet.”

The ceremony is an annual event. This past summer, through an NJEA Pride in Public Education grant, VTEA helped to provide the butterflies that are released by the parents and families. But first, Montgomery and VTEA President Anthony Klock decided to use the butterflies as an educational tool for Montgomery’s second-grade students and fourth-graders in Leigh Zelenski’s class.

“We built a full-scale butterfly life cycle unit that includes science, math, language arts, and—perhaps more importantly—charity and helping others,” Montgomery said. “The children have been keeping a daily observation journal with the help of their fourth-grade friends in Mrs. Zelenski’s class. They are developing a final project using an app called Time Line, which allows them to describe each stage of the life cycle.”

At the Angel Garden ceremony, which was held on a Sunday in October, Montgomery, Zelenski, and Klock attended and helped release the butterflies. Small children crowded around the containers of butterflies and gently shooed them out into the world as the educators answered their questions and shared their delight.

For Montgomery, whose family now includes a two-year-old daughter, the butterfly project is a wonderful way to give back to Coyle and the other grieving parents while including her students in a very meaningful part of her life.

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