Jackson Garden of Hope offers place for reflection after loss of a child

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JACKSON — Tucked away on township property, the Garden of Hope in Jackson is a peaceful oasis where parents can memorialize and remember children they have lost.

The Garden of Hope “is a place where parents can share their feelings or share their memories of their children,” said Bill Valentine, a Jackson resident and the driving force behind the memorial garden.

Valentine’s daughter, Christina, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 21, is among the sons and daughters of all ages who are honored at the Garden of Hope, 334 Jackson Mills Road, Jackson.

The memorial, which was dedicated in 2015, is surrounded by a white picket fence and features gazebos, plantings that attract butterflies, pavers inscribed with the names of
deceased children, tokens of remembrance and images of the loved ones.

“We are a nonprofit organization, Jackson’s Garden of Hope Foundation,” said Valentine, who is a retired firefighter, “It is a place where parents can share their feelings or share their memories of their children. There is no religion or politics there. We accept all
religions and it is nondenominational because we recognize everyone.”

Valentine is also a volunteer for the Where Angels Play Foundation, which was founded following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 in Newtown, Conn.

“We (the foundation) have done 15 playgrounds,” he said. “Before one playground build my daughter passed away and Bill Lavin, the founder of that organization, said we had to do something (in her honor).

“I didn’t think a playground was appropriate, but I said there had been so many kids in
Jackson who had died from a full spectrum of tragedies and I had spoken to almost
every parent in the process of building this (memorial). Where Angels Play gave me funds and told me do this Garden of Hope.”

Valentine said he envisioned the garden in the shape of an anchor.

“My daughter had a tattoo on her foot with an anchor that said ‘Hope’ and so we took that shape and that is how we came up with the name. When I first started we had meetings at a local firehouse and began to get the word out to the public,” he said.

To be eligible for inclusion in the garden, a deceased individual must have been a
Jackson resident or that individual’s family members must live in the township. There is no age limit.

“It started with 80 names in 2015 and we are up to 168 names now. A lot of people did not know about this or a lot of people are not ready to do this because the grieving process is a very personal thing.

“Initially we said children and young adults (would be memorialized), and then we realized there are older people in town who lost a 45-year-old (child) and that is still their child. … An 80-year-old parent can lose a 60-year-old child and they are still grieving their child,” Valentine said.

In the years since the Garden of Hope was created, volunteers have helped to maintain the site, but Valentine said the number of volunteers is dwindling.

“With the (coronavirus) pandemic it has been difficult. A lot of the parents are older and we are very cautious,” he explained. “We did have volunteers, but maintenance of the garden has been waning because we just can’t get people.

“We have cleanups and we will get 15 people. We would really like 30, we really want to involve the community. We have had Eagle Scout projects at the garden.

“We used to have four events a year and now we are down to three. We hold a ceremony between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day for parents who have lost children and for families and friends.

“I also try to get the word out. I have a Facebook page, Christina’s Angels, which
promotes mental health awareness and the message to reach out and speak to someone. So we are all Christina’s Angels. My daughter would not let me sit around and grieve for her and I get plenty of energy from this,” he said.

Valentine shared that maintaining the Garden of Hope can be a challenge, particularly during the summer.

With that in mind, employees from the Jackson Department of Public Works recently stepped up to tend to the site, which had become overgrown with weeds.

“We had a bunch of volunteers there in June, right before the ceremony. We also have people in town donate services or goods to us. We are going to try and establish a better working relationship with the town.

“Over the summer it was very difficult for us to get there. Now we are looking at getting a commercial service to come in and spray for weeds. A fall cleanup is being planned for a Saturday,” he said.

Valentine shared that the garden can have a powerful impact on visitors.

“We had a police officer in town,” he said. “My wife was home and looks outside and
sees a police officer, who asks for me.

“The officer said, ‘I want to tell you I never knew what that garden was. I thought it was just a place to sit. When I walked through there, I knew almost every one of those situations. Whether it was a car accident, a drug overdose, a suicide.’ The officer told me it gave him some closure.

“The Garden of Hope gives that opportunity for parents and friends. It is very peaceful
and we try to plant butterfly friendly plants … it is just a very peaceful place to remember the good times.

“We have children memorialized there who passed on their first day of life and so they did not experience anything, yet those parents … maybe you can’t get to that path in your grieving. We are all on the path of grieving, but we are at different points and we go at different speeds,” Valentine said.

Memorial contributions in memory of Christina Valentine may be made to the
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (www.afsp.org) or to the Where Angels Play
Foundation (www.thesandygroundproject.org).

Valentine said, “We have people who come and plant and add their own personal touch … When you think about it, there are 160 kids in there, transfer to two parents, that
multiplies to 320 and then everyone knows somebody. So the whole town knows
somebody who is there. I have people who say, ‘I went to school with him.’ “