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Goodwill Gesture : Education: 14 sixth-graders at Sierra Madre School are attempting to restore a garden built 65 years ago by the parents of Japanese American students.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sixth-grader Natalie Sandoval never even noticed the patch of land at school--the scraggly pine, the circular formation of granite rocks, a portion of a tiny, arching concrete bridge.

Then, one day, the 12-year-old read a story in The Times’ Sunday magazine about relics of Japanese gardens in the area, including one at her Sierra Madre elementary school. The story told how local Issei, or first-generation Japanese, built a small, traditional garden at Sierra Madre School in 1930. During World War II, schoolchildren vandalized the garden, which has never been repaired.

“I didn’t even know it was a garden,” Natalie said.

It turned out that the garden was the sorry patch of land that Natalie had walked by a thousand times without a second thought, a piece of history spurned by the very people for whom it was created. Now, Natalie heads a volunteer group of 14 sixth-graders who are trying to restore the Japanese garden and erect a marker commemorating its history. On Saturday, the group will hold its first fund-raiser, a car wash, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the school parking lot at 141 W. Highland Ave.

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“The thought of those kids wanting to do something like that is really something,” said Sierra Madre resident George Shimizu, 71, who was a first-grade student at the school when his father and other Issei parents built the garden.

Sixty-five years ago, Issei parents of about two dozen Japanese-American schoolchildren built the garden as a gesture of goodwill. The garden, which is 41 feet by 66 feet, included a fish pond, miniature bridge, bonsai pine tree and stone lantern. The pond is gone, a rusty spigot is all that remains. Part of the concrete bridge still stands, with the etched signature of the cement maker, Ron Kaya, and dated March, 1931. Also remaining are four stones, buried in the dirt, which used to encircle a stone lantern.

Only a few people know of the garden’s existence. Its east side includes a skimpy row of oleander and boxwood shrubs, dubbed “the food bush,” the place where students toss trash.

“We just thought of it as nothing,” said 12-year-old Alex Johnstone.

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At first, Natalie and Alex thought they would fix up the garden themselves. Then they told one classmate, and then another. Soon, most of their social studies classmates had volunteered to become involved, along with two teachers and Sierra Madre landscaper Lew Watanabe, who agreed to donate his time to the project.

“We wanted to heal the wounds of all the Japanese people who made it,” said Alison Southwell, 11.

Beyond its value as a community service, the garden presented a sizable research challenge.

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At the city library, two of the students found a blueprint for the garden in a microfilmed 1931 newspaper story. They also found names of parents who built the garden, and their children. From the list of names, they tried to track down former students who might remember details about the garden.

They found Shimizu and 74-year-old Helen Obazawa. Obazawa, whose father was among the founding group of parents, recalls that city officials somewhere in Japan had heard of the garden and, as a congratulatory gift, sent over a salamander for the students’ fish pond.

Now, Obazawa, a Sierra Madre resident, lamented: “It’s just a wreck, it’s just a pathetic thing.”

The sixth-graders acknowledge that the project will take a lot of work, with fund-raising a top priority. Students wrote to three foundations asking for donations, and are awaiting replies. They also plan to hold more car washes and bake sales.

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Even a simple restoration project would cost at least $15,000, said landscaper Watanabe, who is drawing up design plans. He hopes to enlist the help of landscapers and suppliers to donate labor or materials.

The students’ goal is to complete the restoration this year and unveil the new garden in a formal tea ceremony. They also plan to hold a school assembly before the garden’s reopening, so other students will know its history. They don’t want the garden to be forgotten again.

“That’ll be so cool,” Natalie said, “to come back with my own kids (someday) and say, ‘I helped with this garden.’ ”


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