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Remembering Kathleen Downes: Honoring a Legacy of Championing Education, Childhood, Access, Belonging, and Inclusion

PRESS RELEASE: For Immediate Release

For more information, contact:

CONTACT  Erin Martal (she/her), Interim Executive Director

Email: giving@comms-team

Phone: 607-227-2982

Remembering Kathleen Downes: Honoring a Legacy of Championing Education, Childhood, Access, Belonging, and Inclusion

Ithaca, NY—April 15, 2024—As April 17th approaches, the Ithaca Children’s Garden (ICG) community prepares to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Celebration of Life of a remarkable woman whose spirit continues to resonate across the organization. Kathleen Downes, a cherished board member and Ithaca City School District (ICSD) special education teacher, left an indelible mark on all who had the privilege of knowing her. Her dedication to fostering inclusive environments and her unwavering commitment to education, social justice, equity, access, and inclusion defined her legacy. Kathleen was actively serving on ICG’s board of directors when she died in a tragic car accident on April 12, 2019. Her Celebration of Life, attended by more than 200 community members, was held on April 17, 2019, at Ithaca Children’s Garden. The Celebration was covered by Ithaca Journal here.

Quoted in the article, Jesse Spiro, Downes’ son, recalled his mother’s joy at bringing her grandchildren to the Ithaca Children’s Garden for the first time:

“She loved this garden,” said Spiro. “It truly was her favorite place.”

Central to Kathleen’s ethos was the belief that every child deserves opportunities for learning, growth, and exploring the wonders of the natural world, regardless of a family’s financial means, disabilities, or other challenges they might be facing. 

In honor of Kathleen’s enduring legacy, Ithaca Children’s Garden is proud to invite the greater Ithaca and Tompkins County community to contribute to the 2024 Scholarship Fund, of which Kathleen was a stong believer and supporter. This initiative, inspired by Kathleen’s dedication to access and inclusion, seeks to close the financial gap that families face in participating in ICG’s tuition-based programs. There is currently $49,000 in identified community need, and a generous donor has offered a $20,000 matching gift for funds raised by April 30.

Through generous contributions to the ICG Scholarship Fund, individuals can pay tribute to Kathleen’s memory while making a meaningful difference in the lives of more than 100 families this year.

Erin Marteal, Interim Executive Director with ICG, who worked closely with ICG for more than a decade, adds, “Kathleen’s core beliefs in social justice, equity, and access, and that every child should have the benefits of knowing nature as a joyful childhood experience influence everything we do at Ithaca Children’s Garden. She was a model of putting her beliefs into action with board service, financial giving, and also giving of time and creative energy beyond any expectation. She would bake for every seasonal event at the Garden, and she was a skilled seamstress, knitted scarves and hats, and sewed stuffed turtles for holidays and staff birthday presents. She was a truly remarkable woman. Although she’s been gone five years, her voice is still very much alive and in action here every day.” 

To make a gift to the ICG Scholarship Fund in Kathleen’s name, visit and give online, or mail a check to Ithaca Children’s Garden, 1013 W. State Street, Ithaca NY 14850.

Ithaca Children’s Garden is an award-winning public children’s garden free and open to all, every day of the year, dawn to dusk. ICG’s mission is to inspire the next generation of environmental stewards, and does so through authentic, hands-on, child-led engagement with the natural world. 


Kathleen Downes (right) smiles brightly as she pushes a child on a swing at Ithaca Children’s Garden.

Community Reflections: Remembering Kathleen’s Impact

As we approach the fifth anniversary of the passing of Kathleen Downes, the Ithaca Children’s Garden honors her memory with “Community Reflections: Remembering Kathleen’s Impact.” Below, you will find personal reflections shared by colleagues, friends, and fellow advocates, each echoing the profound legacy Kathleen left behind. These testimonials not only celebrate her life but also underscore the lasting influence she has had on all who had the privilege of knowing her. We are grateful to those who have contributed their memories and invite you to join us in remembering a truly remarkable woman.

“Kathleen had a kind and loving way of illuminating the many ways of living that our local families face, and she has been a conduit for critically important information that has immeasurably helped ICG better serve local families who face hardships of access and inequities. She did this consistently, courageously, and always with compassion. The amazing thing about Kathleen was that you knew she had a lot of opinions. She never pretended not to, but she never wielded her formidable experience and intellect to make anyone feel inferior. Instead, Kathleen’s caring, loving kindness, and warm smile were always apparent and available. She is sorely missed.”

— Erin Marteal, Interim Executive Director, ICG, worked with Kathleen for 11 years during her board service.

“Kathleen was an incredibly involved supporter of ICG programs. She brought so many resources to the education team related to equity and preparing to truly include young people of all abilities. She was a founding member of the DEI committee and also willing to bake and serve delicious treats at events and sew aprons for junior chefs. She has left a rich legacy at ICG and is often remembered.”

— Lauren Salzman, former Education Director of ICG.

“Kathleen was an expert-level special education teacher, finding ways for all students to access learning, express their creativity, grow in their skills, and contribute to the classroom community. She was extremely creative, crafty, and resourceful. She was an exemplary teacher and served for many years as an educator for the Ithaca City School District. She brought all of her expertise, creative thinking, and advocacy to her work at ICG. She has definitely left a legacy.”

— Nicole Dauria, former Board Member and fellow special education teacher for ICSD.

“Kathleen Downes was an extraordinary person and is dearly missed by so many. Her work in education was inspiring to all who knew her. She was tireless and fierce in her advocacy for children with special learning needs and their families, in and out of the classroom. I had the privilege of working with her for many years and was continually amazed by her creativity, energy, intellect, and generosity. Once retired, she turned her attention to the Ithaca Children’s Garden and shared her many talents and showed tremendous leadership in ensuring that all children would have access to the magic of ICG. Many lives have been enriched by her spirit and her skills, and her untimely passing was a great loss to us all.”

— MaryAnn Simpson, retired Speech-Language Pathologist for ICSD.

“I knew Kathleen as a fellow special ed teacher at Caroline. She was a steady, loving, committed force in the lives of all her students. She ran her classroom like a symphony conductor—her children knew their routines, and every child and adult had a place to be and a task to work on at all times, even as her class size grew much larger than it ever should have. She set high expectations for her students, and their growth reflected it.”

— Wendy Wallitt, retired ICSD Special Ed Teacher.

“Kathleen was an amazing, creative, and thoughtful person. I was so fortunate to work with her as a fellow ICG Board and committee member over many years. At meetings and discussions, a moment would come when Kathleen would pipe in with a view from all her years of experience in teaching and art that would lead the conversation in a broader direction, getting everyone to learn to think outside of the original premise. Generous with her talents and time, Kathleen would come up with terrific ideas for projects and events. She could sew just about anything from her stored yards of fabric. For one ICG event, she made beautiful colorful children’s chefs hats that sold out in a matter of hours. She created varied triangular flags that are still strung throughout the Garden during events. And always cooked up the most delicious treats to sell at ICG happenings, seeming to know just what everyone would love to eat. Kathleen’s life was surely too short, I am just so glad she chose to share her love and work with all of us who knew her at the Garden.”

— Harriet Becker, fellow ICG Board and Committee member.

“If you needed to know something about anything, Kathleen Downes amazingly knew everything. Teacher, gardener, seamstress, voracious reader, baker, knitter, artist, scientist, and so much more. Kathleen embraced activities with gusto, whether around teaching ICSD’s youngest learners or during her time outside of the school day. Kathleen accepted every child into her classroom and partnered with their families to strive for success. She intuitively set appropriate expectations in the most challenging circumstances and gained respect from colleagues, students, and families. Kathleen was passionate about the Ithaca Children’s Garden and her service on the board. Pre-K field trips to the garden were always a treat. It was obvious she loved introducing this special place to her students. Kathleen was inspiring to me, and I often wondered how she crammed all she did into a day… into a life. Kathleen had so much to give, left a mark on the hearts of many, and is sorely missed.”

— Kathy Duell, retired, ICSD Pre-K Program.

“Kathleen was a mentor, a colleague, and a friend to me and to many. She had an extraordinary talent for balancing her true intellect and genius with a very humble and approachable humor. She was always quick with a quip or a funny reference. She was never at a loss for words or an idea. She devoted herself to her family, the children and families in her classroom, and her friends. We shared a love of gardening, and she is in my thoughts as I dig and discover with the children in my class. Everything she got involved with improved due to her enthusiasm, her wisdom, and her sense of wonder and delight. We think of her often and miss her dearly.”

— Kelly Craft, teacher, ICSD Pre-K Program.

“Kathleen welcomed, nourished, and taught every child who crossed the threshold of her classroom as if they were her own. There was never a challenge too hard for her to take on willingly. I think they nourished HER! Her classroom was a joyful place. She taught all of us.”

— Sue Rakow, retired ICSD Pre-K Program.

“I remember Kathleen as a strong advocate for all children, but specifically those with special needs. Her classroom was always rich with hands-on opportunities for exploration and learning. I worked with her as a colleague at Caroline Elementary. After her retirement, she continued her work with children by tutoring with the Golden Opportunity program. Again, her tutoring sessions were filled with games and exploration and so many opportunities for continued learning in a one-on-one setting. She was all of these: Advocate, Teacher, Friend, Sister, Seamstress, Mentor, Mom, Gardener, Nana, Go Tutor!”

— Sue Eslinger, retired Caroline Kindergarten teacher and Go Building Liaison.

“Kathleen transformed the lives of many students, educators, and families. She was passionate about and understood the importance of building strong relationships with everyone she worked with. Her understanding of young children allowed her to connect with them in a way that fostered great trust and love, while celebrating and honoring their strengths. Kathleen was also a kind friend and mentor to me and is missed every day!”

— Deb Jordan, ICSD Early Childhood Program.

“Kathleen was a fierce believer in the dignity of every child. It was something that she modeled, supported, protected, and celebrated. She saw the good in others though didn’t suffer fools when it came to getting what she wanted for her students and had a wicked sense of humor.”

— Susan Zehnder, former KDT coordinator, HF Johnson Museum of Art.

“Kathleen was a mentor, inspiration, and kind and thoughtful colleague. I was a PreK teacher during Kathleen’s tenure. I was always amazed by her ideas, energy, and knowledge, and challenged by her deep love and commitment to the profession as well as her true and strong understandings of how young children learn. We, as a program, owe so much to her dedication and love for teaching.”

— Nancy Siegele, retired ICSD PreK Teacher.

As we reflect on the memories and messages shared by those who knew Kathleen Downes, we are reminded of her profound impact on Ithaca Children’s Garden and the broader community. Her legacy of compassion, inclusion, and unwavering commitment to education continues to inspire and shape our efforts. In honor of Kathleen and her belief in providing opportunities for all, we encourage you to support ICG’s Scholarship Fund. Your contributions will enable us to continue offering accessible educational experiences to children from diverse backgrounds, fulfilling Kathleen’s vision of an inclusive and nurturing environment for every child. Please consider making a donation today to help us carry forward her remarkable spirit and dedication. To donate, visit Ithaca Children’s Garden’s donation page or send a check to Ithaca Children’s Garden, 1013 W. State Street, Ithaca, NY 14850. Together, we can ensure her legacy endures through the joy and learning of future generations.