Children's Voice Mar/Apr 2007

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In the Garden They Grow

Memorial gardens honor young lives lost.

By Jennifer Michael

Through a wooden trellis, past a fish pond and a swing hanging from a large oak tree, over a wooden bridge, and along a meandering paved path through more trellises overhung with vines, one finally reaches the memorial to 11-year-old Carlie Brucia.

A large granite stone, engraved with Carlie's image and a poem titled "God's Lent Child," hovers above a small reflecting pool lined with teddy bears and other mementoes left by visitors. Mulched plant beds and two benches encircle the memorial in the back of the garden located on the grounds of the Central Church of Christ in Sarasota, Florida.

Every day when Reverend Rod Myers arrives at the church, he sees people from the community and members of his congregation walking along the pathway leading to Carlie's memorial, known as the "prayer walk." Grassy open space dotted with trees surrounds the pathway. The area is peaceful and inviting--a contrast to the overgrown wetlands it once was. It took dump trucks two days to clear the area in the spring of 2004. Along with all the brush and debris, the trucks also hauled away some of the fear and shock of Carlie's death.

Police investigators found the girl's body in a corner of the church's 10-acre property in February 2004. The discovery horrified the 200-member church congregation. Many of them had gone out days before to search for Carlie--with no luck--on the church grounds after her abduction by Joseph P. Smith was captured on a business surveillance camera and broadcast on news programs nationwide.

"We didn't ask for this, but we felt we had a responsibility to help our whole community work its way through this tragedy," Myers recalls.

The day police retrieved Carlie's body, the girl's family asked Myers to conduct a private memorial service for about 200 people on the spot where she was found. Just four months later, on Memorial Day weekend, Myers held another memorial service in the same spot, this time for 1,000 people who turned out to dedicate the memorial and garden to Carlie.

Through donations and sweat equity from the community, as well as the help of Sarasota County officials who waved building permits after determining the project would preserve the wetlands, the park and garden emerged behind the church to honor Carlie and return a sense of safety and peace to the children in the church's congregation and the rest of the community. They named it the Garden of Joy.

Tending Plants, Tending Hearts

Gardens planted in the memory of children who have died violently or naturally due to health complications can be found in almost every community. Tucked next to churches, schools, courthouses, hospice centers, playgrounds, and public parks, they can be as simple as a bench, a few flowers, and a plaque, or as elaborate as the paved walkway, trellises, and granite monuments found in Carlie Brucia's Garden of Joy. Getting dirty and sunburned is okay when mourning the loss of your child or of someone else's, say those who have created such gardens. Through sweat comes healing, and through planting comes hope. A flower bulb that is planted in the fall and blooms in the spring symbolizes that the children live on in memory.

After Carlie's violent death, "people felt pretty helpless and wanted to do something, and this was something they could do in a positive way--to put their energies into this project," Myers says, noting that Carlie's stepfather put a tremendous amount of manpower into the project. Myers estimates the garden cost at least $150,000 to create, almost all of it covered by donations.

Suffering the loss of a child is a unique kind of grief that requires multiple avenues for healing, and visiting or planting a garden is one way to cope, according to Jo Ann Glim, whose granddaughter was stillborn in 1995. Glim worked with others to create a children's memorial and garden at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Bradenton, Florida. Twice a year, families from around the country who are grieving the death of a child are invited to participate in services at the garden.

Out of this project came Glim's idea to create a national registry of children's memorial gardens. Five years ago, she founded a nonprofit organization, Children's Memorial and Gardens Inc., to oversee this effort. As of last fall, the organization had registered 19 memorials and gardens nationwide, with six more in the developing stages. Glim is aware of about 300 children's memorial gardens around the country, and she is working to contact all of them. To register, each garden pays $65 for a bronze emblem that is displayed in the garden and signifies they are part of the national registry.

Glim explains that a national registry allows people anywhere in the country to log onto the Children's Memorial and Gardens website, and find the garden closest to them where they can attend services or have a child's name added to a memorial.

Coming Into Bloom

Creating gardens and memorials for children can take months and sometimes years of hard work and scraping together funding, but in the end, a beautiful place with a community's unique touch emerges.

In the garden Glim helped to plant at St. Joseph, a 14-foot wood and metal structure created by a liturgical artist who lost a son to murder and another to suicide, stands in the center of the garden with a pathway running through it. The structure is the focal point of a twice-annual "ritual of tears" service. During the service, family members or friends of children who have died hang handmade glass tears from a circular metal corona at the top of the structure as the children's names are read aloud. The supporting legs of the structure, Glim explains, made from California Yellow Cedar, rise above the corona in elegant curves, as if they are piercing the heavens with the tears of the families.

Families nationwide have asked for tears to be hung from the structure, and local residents new to Bradenton have attended the ritual of tears services to honor children who died in the towns from which they moved.

Many gardens naturally sprout from church communities, where the space and manpower is available to devote to such projects, as well as the spiritual desire to create sacred spaces for children.

In October 2005, the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation in Baltimore dedicated its Children's Peace Memorial in memory of the children and teenagers who die violently every year in the city, including 31 children and teenagers who became homicide victims in 2004.

Using a $54,000 grant from a local foundation, the church hired a landscape designer who went to work transforming the ordinary street corner at the base of the cathedral's steps into what the project's organizers like to call an "urban oasis." A straight concrete sidewalk running parallel to the busy street next to the cathedral was removed, and a stone path winding its way through beds of decorative native plants was constructed in its place.

A sculpture in white Georgia marble, surrounded by rose bushes, depicts a lion and a lamb nestling together. A wood footbridge crosses a narrow streambed of green grass and large stones. Tiles made by children who attend the church are decorated with seashells, colorful stone, and glass, and lie interspersed among the plants and perennials. They bear the names and ages of young crime victims, including Rodney, 17; Alicia, 18 months; Larry, 10; Caitlin, 7 weeks; and Keyyon, 14. A wooden bench invites those who pass by to sit and enjoy the garden. A yellow hardbound journal with a pen attached to it lies on a ledge under the bench in a plastic bag (protecting it from the elements) for visitors to record their thoughts.

An entry dated October 27, 2005, and signed "A. Davis," reads, "The city is filled with makeshift memorials: bedraggled stuffed animals tied to lampposts, spray-painted graffiti with 'RIP' and a victim's name. They have poignancy because they are erected at the scene of violence. But they are impermanent, and our collective memories are fleeting. Thank you for trying to make a more permanent memorial, to remind us that every life is precious."

Reminding the city about the need to better protect its young residents, as well as providing a peaceful place for the community, was the church's intent, says Very Reverend Van Gardner. "Our concern was that the crisis of children and violence in the city goes unnoticed. We wanted this to be a visible reminder that our children are in fact dying at an alarming rate."

But church communities are not the only green thumbs creating spaces in remembrance of children. Our Children's Memorial Walkway in Charlotte, North Carolina, grew out of the efforts of seven different organizations and agencies to honor children of all ages who have died.

The lush garden and 12,000-brick walkway is a public park located next to a playground in the heart of Charlotte. Jerry and Skip Mudge have been the driving force behind the project. Jerry Mudge's two sons from her first marriage died in a car accident in 1990 at the ages of 28 and 29. On the first anniversary of their death, she invited her friends and family to help her plant a memorial garden in her backyard in her sons' memory. Mudge then began helping others who had lost loved ones do the same.

In the late 1990s, Mudge and other parents in Charlotte who had lost children started working on the idea of a public memorial garden. Seven organizations banded together to create Our Children's Memorial Walkway, including Mothers of Murdered Offspring, United Family Services, Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation, and Footprints Ministry, an organization run by the Mudges. Together, they raised $50,000 to install the bricks, and Parks and Recreation donated $10,000 worth of trees and plants. They dedicated the walkway in 2003, and are now trying to raise $10,000 to install 8,000 more bricks.

About 700 bricks have been engraved in honor of children who have died, both in North Carolina and other states. Though most of those honored didn't live to be more than 35, the oldest person remembered in the walkway was 93 when she died. The youngest was only a couple hours old when her body was found in a dumpster. "It is for children of any age, because we are all children of our community," Mudge says.

In addition to the organizations that helped establish the walkway, numerous other organizations have bought sections on which to engrave names, including KinderMourn, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Victims Assistance, Compassionate Friends, and Jewish Family Services. Families of soldiers who have died in Iraq also recently bought a section. Many of the organizations hold annual services in Our Children's Memorial Walkway, including services in honor of National Child Abuse Prevention Month in April.

The bricks are laid in an I-shape and framed by weeping cherry trees, monkey grass, and benches. A monument in the middle of the walkway reads, "Our children mean the world to us, remember them always." Parks and Recreation installed an irrigation system for the plants and electricity poles to keep the walkway illuminated at night. Parks and Rec also donated three bronze statues of children. Mudge has named them Adam, Eve, and Joseph. Eve is a little girl with her hair in pigtails, Adam is pushing a wheelbarrow, and Joseph is bouncing a basketball and looking up into the sky. A vandal recently stole the basketball, but Mudge says she doesn't mind. "Now he's just looking out into the heavens. I like that better."

Beyond the Garden Walls

Children's gardens are not only places for healing and remembrance, but also for education. The Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation's Children's Peace Memorial in Baltimore is one example.

On the other side of the country, in Yucaipa, California, near Los Angeles, Debi Faris-Cifelli also tends a garden that has brought awareness throughout her state and nationally about abandoned babies and California's Safe Surrender Law. Faris-Cifelli's mission to save abandoned babies began in 1996 when she heard a news report about a baby that had been found dead in a duffel bag along the San Pedro Freeway. Within days, the bodies of two more abandoned babies were found, and Faris-Cifelli felt she needed to do something.

The suburban soccer mom of three put a $300 down payment on a section of a local country cemetery and buried the three babies there, with permission from the coroner's office. Donors later raised the money necessary to purchase dozens more plots.

Faris-Cifelli named the cemetery the Garden of Angels, and over the last decade she has buried 75 abandoned babies there. The babies are given a name, a grave marker, and a funeral. Faris-Cifelli runs notices in local newspapers about the funerals, and often dozens of people who never knew the children attend. "People remember these children they never knewOe and that is what really touches my heart," Faris-Cifelli says. "People embrace these children as their own."

The Garden of Angels is a peaceful place, she says. A network of community volunteers plant flowers and wash the cross-shaped stone markers. Beside the markers and along a wall in the back of the garden, people leave ceramic angels, stuffed animals, and notes to the children.

"It's really important to me that the garden is well taken care of and that it looks beautiful at all times," Faris-Cifelli explains, "because when I think about where these children have been found--trash cans, dumpsters, washed up on beaches--this is their resting place; this is their place to be at peace."

The garden brings peace to her too. "For me, it is a very grounding place to go. When everything else is going crazy in my life, I can go out there, sit amongst the children, and feel a sense of peace."

Garden of Angels is now a nonprofit organization, and Faris-Cifelli devotes herself full time to the organization and its Safe Arms for Newborns program, which educates the public about safe surrender laws in 47 states. She does four to five speaking engagements a week about the importance of saving the lives of newborns. She speaks mostly in California, but has traveled as far as Europe to spread her message.

Faris-Cifelli worked closely with former California State Senator Jim Brulte (R) to create the state's Safe Arms for Newborns law. Under the law, the parent of an infant can legally surrender the baby within three days of the child's birth to any hospital emergency room or other designated "safe haven." Since the law went into effect January 1, 2001, 153 babies have been safely surrendered, and Faris-Cifelli has been burying fewer and fewer babies in her garden. As of last October, she had laid two babies to rest in the Garden of Angels in 2006, compared with one year when she buried 19.

"When I go out and speak to people, I always share the stories of the children in the Garden of Angels and how they were found," she says. "Those children had a voice, and now we are their voice as a society. They had a reason and a purpose for being here. We can't let that die with them."

In Florida, Rod Myers is hoping that the Garden of Joy will also prevent future losses of children in his community to the kind of violence that took the life of Carlie Brucia. Each year, on the anniversary of Carlie's death, a Kids Safety Rally is held in the garden to teach children how to avoid and defend against predators. The event has drawn hundreds of people from throughout Sarasota, who tour the garden and participate in activities, games, and classes conducted by local agencies for children on everything from bike safety to car seat safety.

The Garden of Joy has also lessened the fears of the children who attend Central Church of Christ after their place of worship was unexpectedly brought in contact with Carlie's violent death. Myers sees parents walking through the garden with their children before and after church services. Children from outside the church congregation who were friends with Carlie also visit the garden with their parents.

"It helps them help their children heal and think through this," Myers says. "Our children feel safe in the garden."

Jennifer Michael is Managing Editor of Children's Voice.

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