By Jill Fox
After a garden was dismantled that was created as a tribute to the victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, community members, including those who helped build it, felt left in the dark.
With a desire to bring a consistent and more permanent feel to the Project Grow Love garden in front of the school, Principal Michelle Kefford approached the City of Parkland for help. However, Mayor Rich Walker believed the city began the project prematurely, “before everything was aligned,” and now they are trying to alleviate everyone’s concerns.
The Project Grow Love garden, created in January 2019 by AP Psychology teacher Ronit Reoven, and her student, Victoria (Tori) Gonzalez, was built in front of the school off Holmberg Road and Pine Island Road.
Gonzalez was the girlfriend of Joaquin Oliver, one of the 17 victims who lost their lives in the massacre on February 14, 2018.
“Victoria did an amazing job bringing the community together in a time of need,” said Walker. “But over the years, the garden became difficult to maintain, and it was neglected.”
Principal Kefford said, “Our school community understands the importance and significance of this garden and wants to ensure it remains a peaceful place where all are welcome to visit.”
Gonzalez was recently told about a conversation Reoven had with Principal Kefford wanting to redo the garden.
“Two weeks later, it was demolished with no warning,” she said.
Principal Kefford said the revitalization became necessary due to deteriorating conditions at the site. Moving forward, they also have a plan for ongoing maintenance.
Gonzalez wanted to help guide the renovation of the community garden she took pride in creating. Now, the 2019 graduate, who owns her own small business selling handmade art and healing tools, is devastated that her collaborative project is no more.
“It was the only place for people to go,” said Jennifer Montalto, mother of Gina Rose, who was killed in the school shooting. “There’s no other place, not even on campus.”
Her husband, Tony, President of Stand With Parkland, agreed. “This was an organic project from our community, so while our families were disappointed about how the process went down, we’re saddened that we still don’t have a memorial at the school.”
Mayor Walker explained how the city wanted to help, but there was a communication breakdown. Now, they are working hard to rectify all of the concerns of those involved.
“It’s shameful the way it went down, zero compassion in the way things were handled here,” said Gonzalez.
“We didn’t properly communicate, and we apologize for that,” said Mayor Walker. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure the victims’ families and the community will be happy when the project is done.”
According to Tony, Mayor Walker reached out on Friday to apologize for not contacting them before this began.
“He has been talking to the families about rectifying the situation, and we’re all supposed to have a call on Monday,” he said.
Mayor Walker said Principal Kefford wants to keep the garden as close to what it was but bring it to a place where it can be appropriately maintained.
According to the city, they are hoping to reuse or relocate all of the items found on the grounds. Their landscape designer came up with a plan for the slightly smaller garden, keeping as much original as possible.
Gonzalez said there was no care in how the demolition was handled.
“From the start of this project, our goal has included keeping cherished items and incorporating them into the revitalized garden or placing them in Marjory’s Garden,” said Principal Kefford.
“Survivors leave something one year and expect to see it where they left it when they return,” Gonzalez said. “Moving forward, the mayor did create a space for me to be involved, but it’s shameful the way this went down.”
Originally slated to be completed by the start of school, Walker said the new garden might take a little longer to finish, but they’re getting close, and ultimately it’s going to be a beautiful project.
Tony said, “We’re hopeful, once they’re able to restore it, people will visit it, appreciate it, and it will be as meaningful as the first one.”
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