By Cheryl Conway
Put in a garden and watch it grow.
That has been the result at the Nick Novaky Memory Garden at Turkey Brook Park in Budd Lake.
Established in June 2014, the garden was created by Dr. Denise D’Amico Novaky of Hackettstown to memorialize her 18-year old son Nicholas Novaky, a Mt. Olive High School senior who died in a car accident two years prior. The memorial is dedicated to all Mt. Olive residents who lost their lives before the age of 30.
Novaky attended a Mt. Olive Twp. Council meeting in August to update township officials on the growth of the garden and ask permission to add a gazebo to the site.
“Because the administration has been so generous with space for the memorial garden, I like to go to the council every few years to give them an update,” says Novaky. “This year a family came forward to me to put a gazebo in. They [officials] put me through the process and walked me through it.”
The Quinn family of Hackettstown is donating a gazebo to the garden to honor their 20-year old daughter, Bridget Quinn, a Mt. Olive High School graduate who died June 8 from an accidental gunshot wound while vacationing in Cape Coral, Fla.
Waiting on some permits, Novaky hopes the gazebo is in this fall.
To Novaky’s surprise, Mt. Olive Police Chief Stephen Beecher and Captain Michael Spitzer who were sitting in the back during her presentation, contacted her and offered to donate a bench to her garden.
“They wrote me and were very supportive of the garden and foundation efforts,” says Novaky. The police offered to pay for a bench and plaque at the garden to honor local family physician Dr. David Rygielski, who died last month.
“Dr. Rygielski has been a pediatrician to so many of our kids in town,” says Novaky. “He really took care of our families.”
While the garden is for those under the age of 30 who lived in Mt. Olive, Novaky says having a bench and plaque at the garden to honor this doctor that cared for so many local youth was only fitting.
Novaky came up with the idea for the memorial garden after the roadside memorial to honor her son was taken down. Novaky’s son Nick, 18, and his friend Neil Solanki, 19, were killed on June 19, 2012, in a car accident after the car he was driving smashed into a tree at the property of Fellowship Church on Wolfe Rd. in Budd Lake.
To commemorate their death, a roadside memorial with memorabilia and mementos had been set up around a large tree where the accident occurred. When the property owner was looking to sell his property, the roadside memorial was dismantled.
Novaky had then requested and received permission by the council to establish a memorial site at Turkey Brook Park, at the top of the loop, by the dog park. Its purpose is to serve as “a place for family and friends to meet together, express grief, find solace, and take time to meditate” to remember all young Mt. Olive residents who lost their lives.
“Mayor Greenbaum and the council made that possible for us and I’m very grateful,” says Novaky.
In response to recent legislation by Hudson County Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti regarding the distraction of roadside memorials, Novaky wrote to him to inform him of what Mt. Olive is doing with the memory garden.
“Mt. Olive has been in the forefront in doing something to help parents who are grieving, work through their grief in a therapeutic way….peaceful way,” she says. “It should be a model for the state.”
In her garden, some plants were donated and others were planted such as daffodil bulbs, hyacinths bulbs, peonies, three lilac bushes, small perennial flowers, Basswood trees, a milkweed garden for monarchs to lay their eggs and is expecting some hibiscus and hydrangeas.
Also featured at the garden are rocks with names of each person who died too soon.
Novaky, who works as a psychologist in Hackettstown, carves the name with a dremel onto polished river stones and places them in the garden.
“I love doing that,” says Novaky. “It’s really fun.”
To date, she says there are a few hundred stones displayed at the garden. Novaky researched the names of all individuals who died prior to their 30th birthday from Mt. Olive and placed a stone at the garden to memorialize them.
There are at least 100 stones now at the garden from the 1970s to present day, and then at least another 100 more that died between 1850 to the 1960s.
She notes that she has “been inundated with so many” names of victims under the age of 30 who died from heroin overdose.
Novaky set up a website- www.become-awesome.org that lists the names and biographies of those individuals from Mt. Olive who died before age 30 from the 1970’s to current day.
If anyone knows of an individual not listed on the site, contact Novaky through her website.
“I’ve been looking for death certificates but miss people,” says Novaky, who decided to use her research of newspaper articles and online sources to compile a book.
The biographies of these young lives lost can now be read in Novaky’s book, “Take My Voice,” with the second edition just published four months ago. In her book, Novaky also shares the history of Mt. Olive, founding families, life during the Civil War and even the Mt. Olive Baseball League from the 1920’s.
“When I got involved memorializing everyone in the garden, that led me to who was here before that,” says Novaky. “Once I got rolling, I was kinda rolling. Everyone deserves to be remembered. It’s important to know who had an impact in our town; it didn’t happen overnight.” Novaky is giving away copies of her book for free but anyone is welcome to make a donation to The Become Awesome Foundation, a non-profit regulated through Charity Smith.
“The Become Awesome Foundation is designed to keep the gifts that Nick brought to this planet alive and continued by others,” she writes on the foundation site.
“Every penny gets funneled back into the community,” she says, and is used to keep the garden going.
“It’s a pretty big space; 30 ft. by 40 ft., it’s big,” says Novaky. Once a year she hires a professional landscaper to mulch and weed the property.”
While there is no running water at the site, Novaky says the town has placed a water buffalo, or mobile water tank with a motorized sprayer, at the far side of the garden so Novaky can keep her plants moist.
Monies raised through the foundation, either from donations or fundraisers, cover the expenses for planting, mulching, weeding as well as the annual scholarship, the Soaring Hawk Award, a cash award given to graduating seniors to offset expenses for college, trade school or small business ownership.
So far five $100 cash awards have been given to one recipient annually selected by a blind selection process by a committee made up of Novaky’s family, friends and MOHS alumnus. Applications are available at MOHS and recipients are chosen “based upon an individual’s ability to make an impact in the community,” says Novaky.
“Anybody who wants to dig a hole for planting can get in touch with me through the website,” says Novaky.
“It’s a labor of love,” she says about the memory garden. “I feel useful being a support for other parents who’ve lost their children.”
Finally being able to have a garden is also a perk.
“I grew up in Mt. Olive and lived in the woods and couldn’t have a garden,” says Novaky. “I live in the woods now and can’t have a garden. I’m actually able to plant flowers that require sun. It’s therapeutic work for me and I adore it.”
For more information or to donate, visit the Become Awesome Foundation website at www.become-awesome.org.