Anna LaBenz spent many summer afternoons on a peaceful, pine-fringed knoll in Foxglenn Park, longing to hold her baby boy while her son, Jack, three years old at the time, played in the nearby playground. Jack’s little brother, fondly known as “JLB,” died during childbirth 10 years ago.
Today, the Flagstaff photographer is beginning to see the power of her love transform the stump where she sat into a place of healing. With the support of friends, doctors, contractors and the City of Flagstaff, a Children’s Garden is starting to take root – a colorful, beautiful, whimsical place of fairy houses, secret seats and starry nights – where LaBenz and her family can embrace their love for JLB and where others can remember the children in their lives who left too soon.
“We don’t have to be isolated in our individual grief, but we can come together and love one another through the journey of child loss,” she said. As she walks the gentle slope of malapai rock and the occasional downed log, you begin to see what she sees. “There will be an archway coming into the garden, a ribbon of love will be emerging and then you’ll see the back of the memorial wall with the children’s names,” she explained.
“We’re all tied together by a ribbon of love. We envision a ribbon appearing and disappearing through the landscape, the way our children are in and out of our lives. Even though we can’t be with them all the time, we can always feel that tug of love on our heart. We’re really never apart.”
Unraveling the details of the ribbon is architect Jesse Stemmler, a Flagstaff native and Northern Arizona University graduate who creates public spaces from his studio in Portland, Oregon. “We took this concept and applied it to the Children’s Garden. In doing so, we envisioned a ribbon that undulates through the landscape. This ribbon would be the connective thread that ties our garden together, presenting opportunities for play, respite, memorializing and reflection. We envision the ribbon to be made of vertical steel elements that have a conversation and dance with the native landscape – receding and remerging to create this dynamic, elegant feature that is woven throughout the site.”
To help the vision take form, Stemmler called in steel sculptor artist Brad Konick, who worked with him on the light rail design in Phoenix. “It’s a beautiful natural topography that creates and enhances a sense of procession upward from the entryway,” said Konick.
Early cultivation of the Children’s Garden began in 2007. LaBenz founded the JLB Project under Northland Hospice to help comfort families facing the loss of children. In 2010, JLB Project became its own non-profit organization. The following year, the City of Flagstaff joined the effort as its first public/private partnership. JLB Project has entered into a collaboration with the city’s Beautification and Public Art Commission (BPAC) to create a sculpture for the garden.
“As we walk up the gravel trail, you’ll feel embraced by the ribbon and led to the sculpture piece, which will signify a release to the heavens,” said LaBenz. A request for bids to create the artwork will go out to artisans in July. The memorial wall, she says, will be inspired by Van Gogh’s oil painting, “Starry Night,” with a space for each child’s name.
“It’s special here,” said Stemmler. “You don’t have to study landscaping to know this spot draws people with its mountain views and the sound of children’s laughter wafting upward. There’s almost a natural amphitheater here, rimmed with ponderosa pines. We looked at the rhythm of the trees and picked up on that rhythm in the design.”
“This is where children go for imaginative, non-structured play. They build little rock forts, rock hearts and nests. They make flower arrangements out of stumps and wildflowers. We want to encourage all of that,” said Melissa Takeuchi, JLB Project treasurer and co-chair of the Children’s Garden Steering Committee with Lee McGarey, M.D., of Mountain View Pediatrics.
“In my encounter with families for the past 15 years, those who have lost children are overwhelmed, stressed and in shock,” said McGarey. “JLB Project offers support to help families through their journey to find resolution and hope, but the memory of that child always stays with them. The Children’s Garden will be a tangible place for the extended community to honor and memorialize children who have passed away.”
McGarey says that in Flagstaff there have been more than 25 stillbirths and pediatric deaths in the last two years. Since its inception, JLB Project has supported more than 400 families during their time of loss.
“It’s not something that happens all the time, but it happens enough,” said Anna Turco, whose first child had a chromosome disorder and did not survive the emergency C-section delivery. “We were in a whirlwind of shock. It was suggested that we go to Phoenix for medical care and we came back up the hill baby-free. To be able to give light to families here and the surrounding area, to create a place where they can sit, reflect, smile and remember, is huge. When I heard about the Children’s Garden, my heart fluttered.”
“Almost everyone has experienced the loss of a child or infant in some way,” said Takeuchi. “Acknowledging each and every life – no matter how short – is important. We want to remember how that child touched our lives.”
“Flagstaff is an incredibly rare and incredibly connected community,” said photographer Jake Bacon. “When I lost my son, the community stepped up and wrapped up myself and my family completely, and carried us while we tried to work out how we would cope. This mountain town very much looks after people. I think the Children’s Garden serves a very valuable purpose because it’s a physical manifestation of the spiritual and emotional connection of this town. “
JLB Project begins its capital campaign this month to raise funds for the Children’s Garden. Already, it is halfway to its goal. Groundbreaking is expected in late summer, with phase one of the project completed in October.
“This is a way to give back,” said General Contractor Stephen Ehrenreich, owner of Outlook Construction and Remodeling, Inc. “We had the same type of loss in my family. It affected me greatly. It still does. When I heard about JLB Project and the Children’s Garden, I thought, ‘Let’s take their vision and make it happen.’”
“I couldn’t be more proud or humbled to be a part of a truly exceptional, collaborative project,” said Stemmler. “A successful memorial can stand the 50-year test: that long after we’re gone the space still inspires and connects people and our community. With the city’s support, we want to create a lasting contribution to the community of Flagstaff. This is our hope with the Children’s Garden.
By Bonnie Stevens, FBN
For more information, visit www.childrensgardenflagstaff.com/donate-1/.