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Queens Impact Awards: Historian revives Queens history in and out of the classroom

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While growing up in Richmond Hill, Carl Ballenas never met any of his 61 first cousins in Peru, and instead turned to the neighborhood for a sense of heritage and history.

He clipped out newspaper articles on Maple Grove Cemetery and gave them to the 65-acre Kew Gardens institution.

Decades later, Ballenas serves as the chairman of the Friends of Maple Grove Cemetery and has won accolades for integrating the stories contained in the cemetery and other Queens landmarks into history lessons at Immaculate Conception School.

“My parents came from Peru and they wanted the American Dream,” he said. “It was just the three of us, so this became home. This is everything I know.”

Ballenas, now a Jamaica Hills resident, teaches social studies and history to fifth and sixth graders at Immaculate Conception in Jamaica Estates.

He leads the schools’ Aquinas Honor Society, which has gotten students involved in researching and publishing three historical books on communities across the borough — “Images of America: Jamaica Estates,” “Images of America: Jamaica” and “Images of America: Kew Gardens.”

Students in the society helped raise money to commission a replacement for the Jacob Riis bust that disappeared decades ago from the Rockaway park named for him.

The society’s work is also showcased around the borough through plaques students unveiled after researching historic sites, such as an intersection that once boasted an inn where President George Washington stayed, and the grave of the first African-American recording star of the phonograph.

“The students must keep a portfolio – books, grants, news clippings … so when they have their college interview, they can reach into it and say, ‘When I was 10-years-old, I co-authored three books,’” Ballenas said, while ticking off his former students’ accomplishments. “It’s made an impact on their lives. It’s part of my legacy.”

Ballenas’ methods earned him awards from the National Catholic Educational Association, Siemens Foundation and History Channel.

When not in the classroom, Ballenas teaches elsewhere. He is chairman of the Friends of Maple Grove Cemetery, a non-profit that promotes the graveyard’s park-like ambiance and historical and cultural resources. The Richmond Hill Historical Society also tapped him as its historian.

In both roles, Ballenas has given lectures on the neighborhood’s past and notable residents. He has collaborated with the organizations to highlight area trivia ranging from where the first car phone was invented in East Richmond Hill to why a mother was rumored to have buried her child alive in Maple Grove Cemetery during the Victorian Era.

“They’re our ancestors,” Ballenas said. “They have a lot to tell.”

Reach reporter Sarina Trangle at 718-260-4546 or by e-mail at strangle@cnglocal.com.

Posted 12:00 am, May 13, 2014
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