Paper fish blew in the breeze as a sea of pink-wearing students, administrators, family members and friends of Zachary “Zachy” Portnoy made their way up a small hill to a new memorial garden made in his honor.
The space, first erected 10 years ago, features two smiling dolphin statues, colorful fish pinned into the ground, and colorfully repainted stones and signs saying things like “You are my sunshine” and “Enjoy every day!”
There are also pink flowers and benches, as well as a mindfulness area. From there, people can also see a river of student-decorated fish pavers going from a wall painted like the sky leading into a wall that says, “There is only one you!”
And all of this, Portnoy’s mother, grandmother and former teacher said, represent the late fourth-grader perfectly.
“He always had a smile on his face and everything that’s here – he loved fish, dolphins, he just loved everything, he loved everyone,” Irene Levinbook, who was wearing a shirt with a picture of her grandson Zachary, said in an interview. “And really, he just wanted to be everyone’s friend.”
“For me, coming out and seeing all the people and walking into the auditorium, everyone wearing pink, his favorite color, and seeing everyone together, it brought back all the love and warmth that he always emitted in his life,” added Paige Lenga, Zach’s former teacher.
Family members, administrators and parent leaders unveiled the newly renovated garden on Tuesday morning. The ceremony featured an assembly with remarks and a slideshow documenting the school’s involvement in the project, as well as students singing after hiking over to the garden.
Most students at Saddle Rock Elementary school weren’t born yet when fourth-grader Zachary Portnoy died in 2007 from a benign tumor embedded in his brain stem, several years after suffering two strokes during brain surgery that removed a brain tumor but left him paralyzed on his left side.
But every student got to know him through the schoolwide project organized by administrators, members of the Saddle Rock Elementary School Shared Decision Making Committee and faculty.
The idea for the project began with Leyla Pourmoradi, who was friends with Zachary in elementary school. She said to her mother, Moji, a member of the Saddle Rock Elementary School Shared Decision Making Committee, that it bothered her nobody knew who the garden was honoring and asked if any changes could be made.
Moji Pourmoradi then contacted the Portnoy family and raised the idea with the school about updating Zach’s garden, she said in a previous interview.
“If it wasn’t for [Leyla] saying that to Moji one day, we might not even be here,” Robin Portnoy, Zachary’s mother, said after the ceremonies. “We would still have our Zachy garden, but not this Zachy garden, not the mindfulness center for the kids, and not that gorgeous wall.”
Robin Trichon, a teacher co-chair of the Saddle Rock Shared Decision Making Committee, said the project was launched after Robin Portnoy spoke with students in November.
Students then took aspects of the boy’s personality and channeled them into art projects appearing in the garden and throughout the school, including the main entrance hallway, which is now pooled with student-made paper fish.
“Zachary was woven through everything,” Trichon said at a gathering after the ceremony, which featured pink-frosted cookies, fruit and pink M&Ms – Zachary’s favorite candy.
Portnoy recalled how her son was like a “teddy bear,” with students coming up to him to hug him, talk with him, sit on his lap while he was on a wheelchair, and how loving he was toward fellow students.
“He was just very mushy and loving and everybody wanted to be with him,” Portnoy said. “I just feel like he represents goodness and kindness and I love that he’s still spreading that now, even when he’s not physically with us.”
As for the garden itself, Portnoy said it had always been a beautiful memorial space where children – often playing nearby – would stop by and think about her son.
But now, she said, it has evolved into something beyond that.
“It’s not just thinking about someone from the past. It’s about the future now,” Portnoy said. “I feel like it’s a living, breathing space.”