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A community garden in Tonawanda

Tucked away in a corner of a City of Tonawanda neighborhood, the Luksin Drive Playground was, until recently, nothing but a couple of broken and rusted swings and animal coil spring rockers.

But where others saw a dreary mess, Luksin resident Mandy Sampson saw an opportunity.

“We live here and we take pride in our community,” she said. “Kids played on that playground when it wasn’t really safe, so I wanted something nicer for them.”

After more than two years of work by Sampson and others, the land bounded by Luksin, Twin Cities Memorial Highway and New Life Day Care Center has been given new life as the Millstream Educational Community Gardens.

There are gardens designed to attract birds and butterflies, seven “community plots” for groups to adopt and, soon, a frog pond.

Residents of that area of the city, which used to be known as Millstream Village, are flocking to the gardens and taking ownership of their peaceful new green space, said Sampson, a teacher’s assistant at Riverview Elementary School. All are welcome, she added.

The community engagement is refreshing to see at a time when many people seem glued to their electronic devices, she said.

“I actually met neighbors – and I’ve lived here seven years – that I never met before,” she said. “That’s a beautiful thing. They’re all coming out.”

Sampson first approached the Common Council with her plan in January 2014, and received the Council’s blessing. The playground was part of Millstream Elementary before the school closed. The neighborhood’s population declined, and with fewer children around, the playground fell into disrepair.

“That playground was never used,” said First Ward Councilman Charles Gilbert, an early supporter of the project. “So to see all the people from the community there, it’s just great to see.”

City workers removed the playground equipment, and the Youth, Parks & Recreation Department connected Sampson with a volunteer group in the city called Team Up to Clean Up.

“This place used to have weeds and looked like a jungle,” said Brian Fose, director of the group, whose volunteers trimmed trees and overgrown brush.

Sampson and Fose, previously strangers, bonded over their love of gardening and shared vision for what the former playground could be.

“Brian’s got the community’s support and Mandy has the ideas,” Gilbert said. “So between the two of them it’s a good mix.”

They broke ground last year and started planting in the spring.

The bird garden is now budding with forsythia and blueberry bushes, echinacea and black-eyed susan. These feed and shelter birds such as yellow finches, orioles and red-bellied woodpeckers.

In the nearby butterfly garden, Sampson and Fose on Thursday planted a donated Dutchman’s Pipe plant, known to attract swallowtail butterflies. There’s also a butterfly bush and coreopsis flowers, among other perennials, along with wooden pallets painted by a Girl Scouts troop for a bit of decoration.

The Jim Harszlak Foundation, named for a city resident who died of cancer in 2012, donated $500 toward the frog pond, which will be installed July 9. The habitat will include pond plants such as hardy lilies and irises that can survive the winter.

Signs in the garden explain the life cycles of birds, butterflies and frogs – because, after all, these are educational gardens. Four rain barrels, painted by students at each of the city’s three elementary schools and its high school, collect rainfall from the roof of a small shelter covering a picnic table. The barrels, though, have been rather empty lately. Volunteers have been carting their own water over to the gardens.

“I pray for rain every day,” Sampson said, laughing.

The volunteers say they’re just getting started. Sampson and Fose brim with ideas for further improving the new gardens, including an arched gateway at the Luksin entrance, a monthly farmers market, and a partnership with the city’s school district to release caterpillars and tadpoles into the gardens.

“We want to do a whole lot more,” Sampson said. “We’re not done yet.”

email: jpopiolkowski@buffnews.com