The blooms are pretty much off the tulips by now, but the special garden planted at Susan Wagner High School will return year after year to remind students of the dangers of drug abuse in their community, and to honor the special person for whom the garden was named.
Last November, the school's SPARK program and Council for Unity teamed up to participate in a national incentive called "Plant the Promise," during which students planted a red tulip garden in memory of a brave and committed federal Drug Enforcement Agent named Enrique Camarena.
They waited all winter for the tulips to come up, and in spite of several "squirrel problems," the flowers emerged, just in time to coincide with school activities focused on drug and alcohol prevention.
During a dedication ceremony at the school, Susan Wagner freshman Saquan Dudley read a letter from the U.S. Justice Department's Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), commending the school for its efforts. In his letter addressed to students, DEA Special Agent in Charge John P. Gilbride, shared the story of Camarena.
better known to his friends and family as "Kiki," never
asked to be a hero. "All he ever wanted was a chance to make a difference,
a chance to somehow help others," Gilbride wrote.
When he was 9 years old, his family moved to the United States. Camarena worked with the rest of his family, picking fruit and vegetables in fields. He watched other kids head for school while he was working.
Eventually, Camarena got the chance to go to school; he became a good student. In high school, he played on the football and basketball teams. He worked on the yearbook. He was even voted "Best All-Around Senior.
When Camarena graduated from high school, he had to make a choice: He saw that his friends were headed for trouble, and he could have followed them. Instead, he worked his way through college and earned a degree in criminal justice. He served in the U. S. Marine Corps. Then he became a firefighter, and finally a police officer. After seeing so many of his friends get into trouble because of drugs, he joined the DEA.
Camarena knew something had to be done to stop drugs and help the people he cared about. His mother knew that his work could be very dangerous, and she even tried to talk him out of it, but he told her that even one person can make a difference.
His mother was right about the work he chose. According to Gilbride, Camarena's work was often dangerous and lonely.
The DEA sent Camarena back to Mexico, to work undercover investigating a major drug cartel believed to include officers in the Mexican army, police and government officials. For weeks, he lived among the drug lords. He gathered information and evidence.
Just when his work was almost finished, the drug dealers found out who he really was.
On Feb. 7, 1985, the 37-year-old Camarena left his office to meet his wife for lunch. Five men appeared at the agent's side and shoved him in a car.
They kidnapped him, they tortured him and, finally, they killed him. One month later, Camarena's body was found in a shallow grave and was returned home to his family.
"Kiki gave his life in the fight against drugs. He gave his life trying to help others," Gilbride said.
To honor his memory, his family and friends all wore red ribbons. As his story spread across the country, others began to wear red ribbons, too. Now every year, students across America celebrate Red Ribbon Week to take a stand against illegal drugs.
"Kiki set an an example for all of us," Gilbride said. "He showed us how one person can change things. And he became a hero. All Kiki wanted to do was make a difference. Enrique Camarena is a hero to our nation and to DEA."
"I didn't know about Agent Camarena until we started to plant this garden. But now when I see the tulips bloom it will be a reminder to me," said student Delbert Jackson, 16, of Todt Hill.
"His story is sad. He gave his life for a cause. This garden is a small way we can remember him and spread his message," said Robert Quigley, 15, a freshman from Great Kills.
His classmate, freshman Robert Cambrelen, 14, of West Brighton, agreed. "I hope that other teens will read about Agent Camarena, and will realize that you don't need to use drugs and alcohol to be cool."
Diane Lore's Chalk Talk column appears Tuesdays during the school year on the Education page in the Advance Lifestyle section. You can e-mail her with local school news and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.