Acts of Kindness: Butterfly Bench and Garden at Washington in Gwendolyn’s Honor

Gwendolyn’s happiest place in the world was Washington Elementary School. There she was treated with acceptance, thrived in the daily excitement of each school day, and was a fully included part of the school community. For our social just-want-to-be-one-of-the-kids child, that was everything.

After Gwendolyn finished preschool, we truly couldn’t believe she was going to Kindergarten, a milestone she was never expected to see — and we were scared. Of course, the medical logistics and general germ contagion were top of mind, but it was the social acceptance and what that would do to her emotionally if she didn’t receive it that kept me up at night. We knew she would love all the fun and wonder of the elementary setting, but we worried about how she would be treated on a daily basis. If I am honest, I went into the experience with pretty low expectations and a hope that she would make at least one friend, have a bond with at least one child who could see beyond the machines and her physical limitations.

And then we went to Washington.

From the first day of school, Gwendolyn soared — and so did her schoolmates and their parents. And, when I look back on our family’s experience there for three years, it almost feels magical. Never before had she been so embraced — not only accepted but included in every way. Children always wanted Gwendolyn to be their partner. They talked to her without needing us to interpret her non-verbal communication. Her classmates felt completely at ease in her company — quickly accustomed to the suction machine, to her saliva towels, to the regular adjustments to her bipap, and to how they should most comfortably hold her hand. They noticed her differences, of course, but, at Washington, those differences were secondary to Gwendolyn first being a friend.

We also had the Dream Team who helped support Gwendolyn (and us) academically and socially. They approached any challenge with optimism and solutions. They helped us navigate so many firsts for everyone at the school and even school district. And they made education and the mainstream classroom accessible for a child with severe disabilities. In fact, with their creativity, Gwendolyn continually reset the bar and pushed us all. And, above all else, they understood exactly who she was and respected her as an incredible individual — and Gwendolyn knew that and, in turn, respected and adored them.

When Gwendolyn rolled through the hallways, she was greeted by everyone in the school… not just her classmates. Parents and teachers of children in the upper grades always said good morning. Third grade Big Buddies routinely came running over to share something with her. She had different and meaningful relationships with the librarian and the office staff and the after school hip hop teacher. And new kids who had questions were always quickly educated by other students, “That’s Gwendolyn. She needs a bipap to help her breathe but she’s just like you on the inside. She really likes horses.” I know this letter we sent to every parent and teacher each year helped pave the way for understanding, but it was these extraordinary people who chose love, compassion, and inclusion and embraced us as just another family in the Washington community.

When Gwendolyn passed away last summer, we knew it would impact the Washington community. But, we definitely didn’t fully realize yet just how many people she had touched nor how deeply. We were humbled by how many teachers and families attended her funeral and how many who couldn’t sent thoughtful letters about her influence on them. And we were so honored when the principal and PTO president told us they were planning a permanent memorial to Gwendolyn on the campus: a butterfly bench and garden.

Throughout the school year, Washington parents planned and organized, designed and labored, volunteered and orchestrated, called in favors and set out to create a space so special and so Gwendolyn. And they succeeded tenfold. The result is not only beautiful, it is sacred.

I don’t use that word lightly — it is such a rare thing to feel. But what they created is so much more than a bench. There is a peacefulness, a calm, a sense of purpose, a sense of community, a joy, a light, a reverence, and a celebration. For Gwendolyn. There is such symbolism in the hundreds of broken tiles, jagged and imperfect, forming the perfect colorful mosaic art. There is such honor in families spending hours upon hours lovingly mixing cement, hauling supplies, and placing hundreds of those broken tiles into small crevices. And there is such a sense of love and healing in the personal messages and paintings each one of her classmates and teachers and those with extra special bonds made to form a pathway through the garden.

As Anna Stump, our friend, fellow Washington parent, and volunteer on this project put it so thoughtfully: “Arms pulled wheelbarrows holding wire webbing and concrete supplies and, knee-deep, worked to mold a shapely base. Arms loaded trucks with tiles, wagons with mortar and buckets with materials to bring to life an incredible concept. Little arms swept up debris around the bench, instead of taking their recess time to play. Little arms, wrapped around little shoulders as students passed by to see the unfolding of daily progress. Hands scrubbed and brushed and dug. Hands gently found a place for every tile, plant, and rock that belonged in that space. Hands hammered tiles into tiny pieces, painted signature tiles for the pathway to the bench and folded onto knees to stand back and marvel at the work. Hands held on to embrace others who also remembered tenderly the little one who gave this sacred space meaning.”

The last week of school, Washington held a dedication… a truly special event. This would also be the first time Bill and I got to see the bench and to say we were blown away is putting it mildly. The PTO President, Tara Haaland-Ford, and Principal Sierra Loughridge spoke about Gwendolyn, her influence on the school culture, and how the bench is a symbol of her lasting footprint on the community. Then many different children got up to speak from their hearts (some planned and some spontaneously) about special memories they shared with Gwendolyn and about how she impacted their lives. Bill also said a few words and then there was a celebration with gorgeously decorated butterfly cupcakes and butterfly balloons and everyone touching and admiring the stunning finished product. Bill and I stood near the bench in awe and with tears in our eyes as we watched Gwendolyn’s friends climb around the bench, loyally touching the tiles, and clearly feeling proud of the gift they were part of creating.

This butterfly bench and garden mean so much to us. To know our child’s life had a profoundly positive effect on others is our complete joy. To have her recognized for leaving this world a better place because of her truly unique Gwendolyn magic is our heart. And this sacred space also gives us a peaceful sense of closure. In the grief that she is no longer at Washington, this space sings joyously, “My God, what a beautiful life was lived here — not only for Gwendolyn but, because of her, for the entire Washington community.”

An enormous THANK YOU to everyone involved in this project:

  • Tara Haaland-Ford for conceptualizing it
  • Principal Loughridge for granting free rein to create something so special
  • Sara Farrar for leading the charge on what this space would look like and how to make it happen
  • Barry Hollis for lending his professional sculptural experience and artistic integrity to making this space so perfect
  • Buena Vista Tile, Aguilera’s Concrete, Mission Ready Mix for donating all the supplies
  • San Marcos Growers and Organic Solutions Landscaping for donating all the plants and labor for the garden
  • William Wolf at Pacific Architects for drawing up architectural plans and getting city and school district approval
  • All the children who painted such thoughtful tiles for the pathway and who bravely shared their hearts at the dedication
  • And all the many families who lovingly spent time volunteering and making this space such a positive reflection of Gwendolyn

Thank you from the bottom of our hearts! And to all Washington families, THANK YOU for embracing our butterfly girl and making her dreams come true.