Last year, Rich Sokolow of Middleton endured the unimaginable tragedy of losing his wife, Michelle R. Harris. On May 15, Sokolow participated in the dedication of a community garden in memory of her at Melita Farms, a Methuen nonprofit to which the couple devoted their time as volunteers and benefactors.
“It was just very special to have this dedication to her,” said Sokolow, who gave a speech at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
“Having that dedication speech … having that legacy there, it was very heartwarming to me,” he said, adding that many family members were present, from the couple’s daughters, Amy and Janna, to Michelle’s mother, Jeanne Harris, to Michelle’s siblings.
Founded in 2016, Melita Farms is a nonprofit that, according to its website, focuses on three skills – “sustainable farming, education, and entrepreneurship” – to help diverse individuals in Methuen and the wider community.
The nonprofit is located on the 55-acre site that was previously a dairy farm run by the Nimmo family for over a century. Sokolow purchased and restored the property, and Michelle wrote all of the content on the melitafarms.org website. She decorated the geodesic dome farmhouse/Airbnb on the property, and also helped define the organization’s mission. A greenhouse to grow crops hydroponically is in the works, as are educational programs for area youngsters and efforts to donate produce to area charities.
“Michelle was all about creating community and beauty in the world,” Sokolow said in his speech. “She formed many communities throughout her life. In a world of increasing isolation and division, Michelle found the key to making lasting friendships and bonds.”
He went on to describe how she did this, listing such endeavors as mah-jongg groups and her involvement at Temple Tiferet Shalom and Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody and the JCC in Marblehead, where she grew up. She also was a freelancer for the Jewish Journal. Sokolow said the volunteer work that made her most proud was teaching English as a second language through Catholic Charities.
Her namesake community garden was designed by Ray Dunetz, a Boston landscape architect, and constructed by Preston Ezzideen of Manchester, N.H,-based Accurate Landscape. Its features include a stone dust surface, decorative fencing, and 12 raised beds.
“I think most of [the beds] are spoken for already,” Sokolow said. “Residents of Methuen and the surrounding area are already growing in the garden. It’s very satisfying to see.”
Sokolow learned about Melita Farms through its president and CEO, Octavien Spanner. A mutual acquaintance had connected Spanner with Sokolow when Spanner was looking for help purchasing the Nimmo farm site.
“It took me a little while to understand what the nonprofit’s purpose was,” Sokolow said. “Michelle was here at the time. We discussed it and thought it was an attractive project. It was a farm owned by the same family for 110 years, a dairy farm that had gone into disrepair … It was a good option for this organization to purchase this.”
Although Sokolow said he is not a green thumb himself, he noted that his wife loved gardening and mentioned the hydrangeas she planted at home. Their interest in gardening arose from a trip to Costa Rica. The itinerary included a one-day visit to a farm, and the couple got to plant rice, cut sugarcane, and learn about eco-friendly farming.
“We just had a wonderful experience on the farm,” Sokolow said. “When this opportunity [to help Melita Farms] came up, we got excited about it because it’s local farming, local produce, having fresh produce for the community, which is a big movement now, as opposed to having vegetables coming from California or farther out. It’s much more environmentally friendly to have your produce grown locally, transported locally.”