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Alumni News

Keeping the Story Alive

May 03, 2012

When Educational Assistant/Autistic Intervener Mary Figliuzzi read Nonna’s Garden to the Grade 5/6 class she was assigned to one day in 2007, she was amazed at the response. Particularly since there were no illustrations to accompany her newly-written story.

“I couldn't believe how attentive the children were and the questions they asked,” recalls Mary. “Over the years, I would continue reading the story in class and I was always amazed at the number of children who would ask me if I could read it again to them.”

Nonna’s Garden centres on Mary’s fondest memories of growing up with her grandmother (Nonna) in Toronto. Mary’s parents and grandmother came to Canada from Calabria, Italy. After Nonna passed away in 2006, Mary was inspired to document her early experiences surrounded by Italian culture, and eventually publish the children’s book.

To illustrate the book, Mary turned to Sheridan alumna Karalyn DaRosa. A long-time friend of Mary’s daughter, Karalyn graduated in 2011 from the Art & Art History joint degree program at Sheridan and the University of Toronto Mississauga. Karalyn drew on her Portuguese heritage to create the childlike illustrations for the story.

Published in December 2011, Nonna’s Garden has clearly struck a chord with the community. “I was overwhelmed by the responses I received from people who could relate to the story as children and grandchildren of immigrants to this country,” says Mary, who is donating a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the book to the Toronto charity ShareLife.

When her own children were young, Mary decided to return to school and Sheridan seemed like a natural choice. “My husband (Al), also a graduate, was teaching Italian in the evenings at Sheridan. I knew it was a very good college and it was close to home,” says Mary, whose children are grown now. Her daughter will receive her teaching degree this spring and her son is a part-time Media student at Ryerson. Al earned an Electronic Engineering Technology diploma in 1979.

Mary has been working with special needs children for the past 17 years. Throughout this time, she has had the chance to put into practice the best lessons she learned all those years ago at Sheridan:

“Having worked with special needs children over the years, I have seen firsthand the diverse and varied ways in which children can learn and succeed,” explains Mary. “For example a child with autism can more readily succeed if he/she is in a high structured environment with supports such as schedules, visuals and social stories. I thank Sheridan College for teaching me these tools.”

For more information about Nonna’s Garden, please contact Mary at

Mary Figliuzzi

Mary Figliuzzi, Educational Assistant, 2000