Woodhaven Students Learn Through Action

By Meaghan Lee Callaghan, 20 Nov. 2015

Behind the rows of closely packed 19th century homes on narrow Queens streets, tall privacy fences and wide hedges hide a bit of New York City’s past. But looking past the bushes, a group of young Queens residents have brought some of the earliest settlers of New York out of obscurity.

Through the refurbishment of a forgotten cemetery, St. Thomas the Apostle students have gotten a hands-on brush with history. With help from the Cultural and Historical Society, the students, aged 10 to 13, have not only helped to cut away weeds and cart of debris littering the cemetery, but have taken up the task of mapping out the family trees of the settlers and their decedent’s buried therein.

When given the opportunity to explore the history of their neighborhood, the students chose to look into the cemetery’s past, says Patti Eggers, teacher and adviser of the history club. “I threw it out to the kids, and they bit,” she said.

For the past two years, the St. Thomas the Apostle Academy’s history club, along with the local Cultural and Historical Society, has made the restoration of the Wyckoff-Schneider Cemetery, in Woodhaven, Queens, a top priority, and their hard work has paid off. Last Saturday the two groups declared an end of phase one restoration, celebrating a management of the once overgrown space. Phase two holds promises of leveled ground, uniform fencing and benches in years to come.

Eggers believes that through taking on this project, the students developed a way to understand and make connections to their neighborhood today. She explained that many of the students are the children or grandchildren of immigrants to America just as many found throughout the genealogy charts, even though many are from Latin America and the Caribbean, unlike the original Dutch settlers of Woodhaven.

For two students within the group, Camilla Toro and Brooke Fernandez, both seventh graders researching one of the cemetery’s family plots, it is obvious how much has changed from the times of the Dutch settlers, and much of it for the better. Fernandez mentions that so much has changed that “even the way they write is different.”

But for the two girls, the increased diversity and relaxation of gender roles highlight the hard lives that past residents lead in comparison to lives today. Out of discussions of discrimination, agreeing to a marriage out of economic convenience seemed the most outlandish to Toro.

“For me, it sounded wrong to say just to marry someone just so they can cook for you,” she said. “Just to clean; just to feed your kids that aren’t even that person’s. That’s tough.”

The students of St. Thomas’s history club are learning to relate the history and cultural perspectives of the neighborhood to their place and identity in the world today, while also bringing back family lines long forgotten into an air of respect and remembrance.

To Eggers, the student’s connection to the cemetery and understanding of the past help to form the way they interact with the present neighborhood. “This generation has to learn to make it work,” said Eggers. “That’s why history is so important.”