Project Grow Love memorializes shooting victims and helps Parkland community heal

Victoria Gonzalez, a 2019 alumnus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, sits in front of Project Grow Love, the garden she started to commemorate the victims of the 2018 mass shooting.

For the survivors and those affected by the 2017 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting in Parkland Fla., the pain, anger and grief has produced many results- from the national movement of March for Our Lives fighting for gun reform legislation, to books documenting individual’s journeys, to victims’ families petitioning to get a ban on assault weapons on the 2020 Florida ballot.

But locally, peace came in the form of a grass-roots memorial garden dedicated to the victims, called Project Grow Love.  

On Christmas Eve of 2018, former Stoneman Douglas psychology teacher Renit Reoven called senior Tori Gonzalez, asking if she would help place some holiday plants in front of the school to pay homage to the victims during the holiday season, acknowledging the fact that holidays can be especially hard for people grieving. 

At first, they placed silk flowers down so they would not wilt. 

 “As we stood there, I started thinking of how beautiful it would be if we actually dug up the dirt and made a little garden,” Gonzalez said. “Then the idea of inviting the community to take part came to mind. It was the perfect domino effect.”  

Soon after that, Project Grow Love was born. Members across the Parkland community came together to pack the garden full with various plants and continuously help to maintain it.  

“Sometimes people leave all kinds of special surprises, like painted rocks and garden signs,” Gonzalez said.

Over a year after its inception, Project Grow Love continues to thrive. The plants in the garden vary on a day-to-day basis; members of the community can plant whatever they would like to. 

Once the proverbial, quiet suburban high school in one of the 2017 safest cities in Florida, according to the National Council for Home Safety and Security, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is named after a prominent journalist and conservationist who fought fiercely against attempts to drain and develop the Fla. Everglades in the mid 1900s.  But on Feb. 14, 2017, the school garnered national attention when an ex-student broke in and opened fire. 17 faculty and students were killed; 17 more were injured.

Gonzalez lost her longtime boyfriend, Joaquin Oliver, in the shooting and has since looked to the garden to bring her joy. Many students at Stoneman Douglas do the same, turning to Project Grow Love in difficult times.  

“This garden is so important to me because it is impossible not to smile at the beauty of it. I can’t tell you how many people have personally thanked me for initiating this project,” Gonzalez said. “And it wasn’t until then that I realized how healing it could be- to watch something grow in honor of what was lost. I couldn’t ask for a better way to memorialize our fallen eagles.”

This is not the first time that communities have leaned on the therapeutic effect of gardening after a mass shooting tragedy. 

After a gunman took the lives of 58 people at a country music festival in Las Vegas, Nev. in October of 2017, volunteers placed dirt in an old parking lot miles from the crime scene, turning it into a memorial garden. Now, 59 oak trees stand in the garden- one to commemorate each victim and one symbolizing life.

“From gardening at home to visiting a public garden, connecting with nature can improve human health and wellbeing,” Devin Dotson, Public Affairs and Exhibits Specialist at the United States Botanic Garden, said. “ Gardens can serve different roles for different people - a place of gathering, learning, reflection, and more.”

Recent studies from Michigan State University confirm that gardening builds mental clarity and relieves stress. Local gardens have a positive impact on the environment as well, drawing in pollinators. 

“I believe that being out in nature is very healing. The aesthetic, the beauty of looking at stuff, makes us smile and probably start noticing something that one has not noticed before,” Professor Hartmut Doebel, assistant professor of biology at George Washington University, said. Doebel specializes in pollinators. “More pollinators will be attracted to local gardens because they find food sources. In cities, there are not too many food sources and we do not have many native pollinators.”

As the gun violence epidemic in America continues to reign, local gardens give the community a private space- away from the protests, large movements and news coverage- while also giving back to the environment. In the case of Project Grow Love, just a small patch of grass in front of a high school has allowed the city of Parkland to cope and heal from the tragedy.

“The Parkland community has been grieving for almost two years now. There is no way to describe our pain. The events of that day continue to affect the entire community every day,” Logan Rubenstein, a current sophomore at Stoneman Douglas, said. “Project Grow Love has given us an outlet to find peace with nature. It has helped me a lot through these tough times.”

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