In March of 2020, the once-bustling 30th Avenue in Astoria had turned into a morgue with refrigerated trailers parked along the sidewalk, holding patients who passed away from COVID-19. In an effort to bring back the vibrance of the community, Astoria resident and Mount Sinai Queens nurse Fionnuala Quigley decided to create a Rock Garden of Hope just outside the entrance to the ER.
Quigley described March and April as a “grim” time. The Rock Garden of Hope, located on 30th Road off of Crescent Street, was to be a vision of hope and a new way of looking at the street she walked on every day.
“Where the garden is, is where those trailers were — those dreadful trailers,” Quigley said. “Once the trailers were moved, I still had the image of them in my head. So I just wanted to change the perspective of the area and make it happy again.”
Quigley lives directly across the street from Mount Sinai Queens in Astoria, so she could never really escape the horror of the pandemic that she dealt with every day at work.
“Even when I would go home, I could still hear the ambulances,” Quigley said. “I would leave work and also field calls from family that [was] worried or friends because someone was sick; I was always on call, even though I wasn’t at work. I just started painting rocks to get my mind off of it — just to turn off the world and not watch the news because I was living it.”
Before the Rock Garden of Hope was created, Quigley just painted rocks for herself, mainly painting cartoon characters and inspirational quotes. Then, her coworkers joined in. They chose a bare plot outside the hospital where they could leave all of their brightly painted river rocks for the whole neighborhood to walk past. The Mount Sinai healthcare workers all hoped that their neighbors would also feel the shift in perspective once the trailers were removed and the garden took over.
“It helps relieve stress,” Quigley said. “The people in the neighborhood would come by and look at it or take a rock if they needed it. They enjoyed it.”
The small plot is filled with colorful rocks, some have names to remember those who passed or uplifting sayings. One rock reads, “Here Comes the Sun,” which Quigley and her coworkers used to play when a patient was discharged and sent home.
Quigley also started rock painting sessions where she and her coworkers could come together and take a moment to acknowledge the trauma they all experienced during the height of the pandemic.
“It’s more of a therapy rock garden. Everybody was thinking, ‘What just happened?’ It started to hit us what we just went through,” Quigley said. “Some would paint rocks for loved ones who passed away, some were painting just inspirational sayings. We could just forget what was going on. You honestly just forget and get caught up in the rocks.”
Quigley will be cleaning up the garden after the winter took a toll on it, sweeping and replacing the small fence that surrounds it. Quigley and her coworkers are even considering lining the perimeter with flowers this spring.
There will also be another rock painting session this June for Quigley and other Mount Sinai healthcare workers to relieve some stress. Community members are also encouraged to leave a rock to remember someone who passed or leave a hopeful message for the future.