SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) — Syracuse’s celebration of Arbor Day has a special meaning this year. Students from Syracuse STEM at Blodgett Middle School planted trees to remember former classmate Brexialee Torres Ortiz and teacher Aisha Haskins-Stephens.
For years, this area on the city’s Westside on Tully Street was considered an eyesore.
“The site was awful. It had a history of illegal dumping,” said Steve Harris, city arborist.
Now, the greenspace across from Syracuse Stem at Blodgett Middle School has a new appearance and purpose, honoring former classmate 11-year-old Brexialee Torres Ortiz, who was shot and killed while walking home from a corner store nine months ago, and teacher Aisha Haskins-Stephens who was trampled to death at a concert in Rochester in March. But they’re remembered for so much more, and the students wanted to show that.
“This means a lot to me and especially everybody here who was family or friends or associated with Brexi or Aisha,” said Toya Lemons, an eighth grade student.
Eighth graders at Blodgett in a living environment class planted more than 10 trees, two of them being memorial trees honoring both victims. Next to them lay memorial plaques for both Brexi and Aisha.
“This helps make sure that they’re still with us. They’re still here. They’re still looking over us and makes everybody feel comfortable and knows that it’s fine. It’s ok. They’re here,” said Lemons.
“It’s been a very difficult year, and it hasn’t gotten easier. We’re still picking up the pieces and figuring out how to move forward,” said Kayla Gallagher, school psychologist.
Each month, the school holds “Brexi-Aisha Day,” taking part in different activities in honor of both of them, but this is different.
“Those are one-day events, and it’s great, but this is something permanent. And this is something lasting. Five years from now, we’re still going to have those trees out there with their names on them,” Gallagher said.
The work isn’t over just yet. A small fence around the area will be placed in the next few weeks.