EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 6, 2013

The secret garden

Woman surprises boyfriend with park memorial to his mom

By Mike LaBella

---- — HAVERHILL — Jennifer Babineau left her apartment whenever she had a chance, and it was starting to bother her boyfriend, Scott Gaff.

He works long hours and complained that she wasn’t doing chores, such as the dishes. She would only tell him that she was out running errands, as well as looking for a job.

“He’d call and I’d just say, ‘I’m out,’” Babineau said of calls he made to her cell phone.

Gaff didn’t find out what was going on until his birthday on July 11. That day, he was a passenger in Babineau’s sister’s car and, when they approached a small park at the western edge of Plug Pond, he noticed the park was filled with his relatives. He told the driver to pull over.

Leaning against a tree was a sign covered in a blanket.

“I told him, ‘Do you remember all those times I wasn’t doing the dishes or cleaning the house? This is what I’ve been doing on my time off,’” Babineau said. “He was speechless.”

Babineau revealed the sign which indicated she had adopted the area through the city’s Brightside organization as a birthday gift to Gaff. She told him she did it in memory of his mother, Kitty Gaff, who died in 2008.

Scott Gaff’s eyes filled with tears as memories of childhood trips to the little park with his mother came rushing back.

“We didn’t have a lot of money to do things, so my mom would take me here to fish,” said Gaff, 36. “I spent a lot of time here with my mother.

“I really didn’t know what to say at the time,” Gaff said of the surprise gift. “Jennifer didn’t even know my mother.”

Although Babineau’s sign says “Kitty Gaff Memorial Park,’’ the area’s official name is the Mill Street Boat Ramp Area. It’s popular with people who launch canoes or other small craft onto the pond It’s also a popular spot to fish or spend time near the shore of beautiful spring-fed Lake Saltonstall, which is Plug Pond’s official name.

Babineau said she was looking for an area to adopt a few months ago when she walked into the mayor’s office to see what was available.

“I asked the mayor’s assistant if there was a spot near Plug Pond as Scott grew up in that area,” Babineau said.

Babineau was put in touch with Brightside. With the group’s permission, Babineau and members of Gaff’s family began cutting overgrown weeds to provide a better view of the water. They also created an oval flower bed featuring rose bushes, foxglove, velvet curtains and other flowering plants, and surrounded them with bricks.

“We’d kept it secret from my boyfriend and he had no idea what I was doing,” said Babineau, who created a website to chronicle the work being done.

Babineau, a cancer survivor, put her education on hold when, in 2006, she underwent a bone marrow transplant for blood cancer. At the time, she needed to raise money for expenses, so she acquired the skills of a professional fundraiser. She used those skills to acquire donations for her adopted park, including mulch from Rogers Spring Hill Farm, a set of loppers from Arthur Sharp’s True Value hardware store, various flowers and plants from Goudreault Farm in Plaistow, hosta from John Goulet of the Atkinson Garden Club and a park bench from Riverside Memorial Church in addition to mulch, a trash barrel and assistance from the city.

“We have five different color mulches,’’ Babineau said. “We’ll take any kind of mulch that’s free.’’

Babineau, 29, finally graduated this spring with honors from Bay State College with a degree in hospitality management and hopes to find a job in events management.

“In recent years, the area became somewhat overgrown, leading Jennifer to step in,” Brightside volunteer David LaBrode said of Babinea’s efforts at the park. “Jennifer and her family recently put in a picnic table and have basically revitalized the area, opening it up for a better view of the pond, and so far it’s been tastefully done.”

LaBrode made a few improvements himself by refurbishing a rotted wooden bench which had been sitting there for years. He also planted an American chestnut tree. The city provided a second bench and LaBrode refurbished that one, too.

LaBrode said adopting a park creates a partnership where volunteers care for city traffic islands and parks and they get support in the form of free mulch and hauling away brush and other debris.

Vincent Ouellette, human services director for the city, said Babineau’s efforts have enhanced the area and its view of the water.

“A lot of people have been commenting about it and say they really like what was done,” Ouellette said. “Hopefully people will enjoy and respect the area and not leave trash behind.”

Babineau battled invasive species of plants and overgrown vines that were choking off healthy shoreline plants and blocked the view of the water. She said her work had to be approved by Robert Moore, the city’s conservation agent. She could only use hand tools and nothing powered by gasoline. Things like cutting cattails were not allowed because they are part of the pond’s ecosystem, Babineau said.

“Some of the vines were 10 feet high and stuck way out,” she said. “They were wrapped around a willow tree, which we were able to save.”

Since receiving his birthday present, Gaff has been working to improve the area as well. He talks about his mother reverently and says she was the family’s guiding light.

“She helped family, she helped friends and she even helped strangers by giving them all a place to stay when they needed one,” Gaff said. “My mother was the person who the family went to for help. I think every family has someone like that.”

Gaff said he hopes he can get permission from the city to install bird hotels and plant more flowers and trees at the park. He wants other families to enjoy the area just as his family did when he was young.

Babineau said Moore advised her to review a list of native plants that would not be a detriment to the pond’s ecosystem before plant anything new.

“When we’re there working, people have been stopping to say how nice it looks,” Babineau said. “We also noticed more people have been coming there to fish, including grandfathers bringing their grandchildren. It’s something you can do for fun without spending a whole lot of money.

“Now we’d like to put in some edging and add some other flowers and refinish the picnic bench,” she said. “I just hope we don’t run out of room.”

For more information about the project, visit oceanviewlove.wix.com/kittysmemorialpark.