St. Benedict School faculty members and supporters pose for a photo during the blessing of the new PreK3 playground.
St. Benedict School faculty members and supporters pose for a photo during the blessing of the new PreK3 playground.
A unique “nest” on the campus of St. Benedict School, Holmdel, is a welcomed gathering place this year, not for feathered friends but for the youngest of students.

“The Nest” is the name of the new playground for PreK3 students which is outfitted with multiple slides, sensory panels with tic tac toe and clock faces, binoculars and designated play spaces.

According to Kevin Donahue, school principal, the playground was blessed Sept. 16 by Father Garry Koch, pastor of St. Benedict Parish, and dedicated in honor of MaryEllen Harris, who, in October of 2021, donated two new preschool mobile classrooms to honor her late husband Dr. Robert H. Harris.

It was through this generous donation that St. Benedict School was able to open the doors to two brand new PreK3 classrooms, allowing for increased enrollment in the lower grades and doubling the capacity for PreK3 students. As a token of appreciation for Harris’ generous support, Donahue said the idea of adding a dedicated playground for the PreK3 students in her name seemed to be the “perfect acknowledgement of the school’s gratitude to her outstanding philanthropy.

“Through various fundraising efforts of SBS, including a schoolwide walkathon held in the spring, the playground initiative became feasible and a top priority to complete during the summer,” he said. 

Under Donahue’s direction, the designing, planning and building of the playground, along with a new garden area commenced. The project was supported by the RAINE Foundation, a local charity supporting families in need that donated the rubber mulch flooring, and Olivia Ulrich, a 2019 SBS graduate and member of Girl Scout Troop 1502 who built sensory equipment to enhance the play space as part of her Girl Scouts Gold Award service.

At the start of the school year last month, the PreK3 playground signage, “The Nest – The MaryEllen Harris Playground,” was hung and the playground was ready to welcome 24 new PreK3 students. The Sept. 16 dedication ceremony marked the official playground opening with honoree Harris in attendance, along with her service dog Fay.

The ceremony also included opening remarks from Donahue; Holmdel Mayor Greg Buontempo presenting a proclamation in honor of Harris; St. Benedict School PreK3 teacher, Melissa Catalano, and her students presenting a token of appreciation for their new classrooms -- a photo book of memories of “Year One” in the Dr. Robert Harris Early Learning Center.

Alumna Ulrich also shared words of gratitude at the ceremony’s closing and noted that her sensory equipment included two sensory tables; a large counting abacus; a musical xylophone, and a sensory garden with various plants.

“The PreK3 students are guaranteed endless hours of social interaction and outdoor play with their new playground and equipment for many years to come,” Donahue said.

Other ceremony attendants included Dr. Vincent de Paul Schmidt, diocesan superintendent of Catholic Schools; Patti Dickens and representatives of the RAINE Foundation; Margaret Kane, principal of St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel, and the Girl Scouts of America CEO Heather Coburn and Gold Award team representatives.