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Heidi Stevens: 'It doesn't make the pain go away, but it makes it a little better': 29 years after girl's death, a community garden grows strong

Heidi Stevens, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Gardening News

CHICAGO -- Zoey Holmquist-Kuhn, 11, unearthed a slimy white slug and could not have been happier about it.

"I love slugs and worms and ants and spiders and flies and butterflies and moths and caterpillars," she told me. "I like slimy stuff and dirt."

She was in her element, surrounded by a dozen of her fellow Girl Scouts from Troop 25174, working in a garden at the corner of Kenwood Avenue and 56th Street next to the playground at William Ray Elementary School.

Audrey Tian and Bayaan El-Bawab, both 10, worked alongside Zoey, digging and yanking, digging and yanking some more, until the threesome, with great fanfare, pulled a lump of concrete and wood (plus a slug) from the ground.

What they held -- and then hauled away -- was the last remnant of a broken bench that once faced the corner garden, whose cheerful daffodils and delicate ferns and lilting birdsong pay homage to a little girl named Amanda Carter.

"She wanted to be an artist and a scientist," Diane Herrmann, Amanda's mom, said. "She loved climbing trees. When we were on vacation, she would see a tree she wanted to climb and we would stop so she could climb it. She was out in nature a lot. She would've been a Girl Scout."

Amanda was killed by a drunk driver when she was 8 years old. It was March 11, 1990, and the weather was uncharacteristically warm. Amanda spent the afternoon playing with friends in the grassy parkway along the Midway Plaisance. A driver struck her as she crossed an intersection at a crosswalk.

A memorial garden was the idea of a teacher at Ray Elementary, where Amanda and her younger brother both attended school and where their father, Andrew Carter, used to teach. (Andrew Carter still serves on Ray's local school council.)

"When you're in second grade and you lose a classmate suddenly like that," Herrmann said, "what do you do with that?"

Teachers and parents from Ray thought a living, ever-changing garden might provide a path toward healing.

Close to 30 years later, it continues to grow and evolve and invite new life -- human and otherwise -- into its environs.

A plaque sits at the southeast corner. "In Memory of Amanda Carter. Ray School Student Who Loved Flowers and Butterflies. December 9, 1981-March 11, 1990."

"It's a challenge at a school level to do gardening, because the main growing season is summer, when everyone's gone," said Charis Wuerffel. "We have some work days where no one shows up."

Wuerffel is the garden coordinator for Ray School, where her children attend second and fourth grades. She has a background in edible gardening and helps manage a community garden at 62nd Street and Dorchester Avenue.

Recently, Wuerffel led the Girl Scouts toward what needed digging, what needed hauling away, what should remain untouched.

Soon the garden's grapevines will hang heavy with grapes. Lilacs will cover the arches that kids hide behind and pretend to live among. Signs ask people not to pick the flowers, but if tiny hands disobey, they won't come in contact with pesticides, which are never used on the grounds.

"By the end of the season, it's half weeds," Wuerffel said. "It's good for the kids to see there are different types of beauty. You don't need a manicured garden look. Things that look a little bit wild are important."

As Wuerffel and I spoke, Girl Scouts squealed and careened down the sidewalk, taking turns pushing one another in a wheelbarrow after their work was done.

"That makes me happy," Hermann said. "It's what I would've wanted my kid to have been doing. I don't feel like the garden needs to be sacred or quiet."

After Amanda died, Herrmann, who taught mathematics at the University of Chicago before recently retiring, worked with Mothers Against Drunk Driving to raise awareness about the toll of driving under the influence.

She and Carter and their son, who was 6 when Amanda died, worked with the group's grief counselors and family therapists. Herrmann volunteered with other families to give victim impact statements to drunk driving offenders.

"You never know who you're going to impact," she said. "Sometimes people would fall asleep. They had a night shift and this was where they had to be the next day. Others would come up to me afterward and show me pictures of their own children."

But that was years ago. Now she teaches needlepoint classes. One of the designs is called "Amanda's Garden." "Summer flowering morning glory, coneflower, hibiscus, sunflowers and lush pink roses entice a young girl to stop and enjoy their fragrance," reads the description.


In a way, a parent's grief is also a living, changing thing.

"Amanda would've been 37 this year," Herrmann said. "And I was 37 when she died. It's been particularly hard for me this year. It comes and it goes. With anybody who's grieving, it comes back sometimes and it overtakes you."

The garden has been a constant.

"It's had more and less care, depending on the year," Herrmann said. "Right now, it's in as good a shape as it's ever been."

After 90 minutes of labor, Carter gathered the Girl Scouts, their leader, Wuerffel and anyone else who wanted to take part, and thanked them for their time. He strummed a guitar and led the group in two songs: David Mallett's "Garden Song" and Pete Seeger's "God Bless the Grass."

God bless the grass that grows through the crack

They roll the concrete over it to try and keep it back

The concrete gets tired of what it has to do

It breaks and it buckles and the grass grows through

And God bless the grass.

God bless the truth that fights toward the sun

They roll the lies over it and think that it is done

It moves through the ground and reaches for the air

And after a while it is growing everywhere

And God bless the grass

After the songs, Carter handed out chives and garlic from the garden.

"It's a beautiful place," Herrmann said. "We get to talk about her. People who didn't know who she was learn about her. It's peaceful. It doesn't make the pain go away, but it makes it a little better."

Join the Heidi Stevens Balancing Act Facebook group, where she continues the conversation around her columns and hosts occasional live chats.

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