- Associated Press - Sunday, April 10, 2016

ORANGE PARK, Fla. (AP) - Somer’s Garden marks it first anniversary April 23.

The first public food forest garden in Northeast Florida is a living memorial to 7-year-old Somer Thompson who was abducted, assaulted and murdered on Oct. 19, 2009, by Jarred Harrell, who had lured her inside the home that once stood at the site. Harrell, now 30, is serving life in prison.

Somer’s mother, Diena Thompson, obtained the foreclosed home at 1152 Gano Ave. and arranged to have it burned down as a training exercise for firefighters. But she also wanted to honor her daughter’s memory. Thompson partnered with nonprofit Bringing Food Forests to Northeast Florida to transform the site into a self-sustaining community garden of organic vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers.

The community garden has blossomed since then - growing into a place of healing as well as fresh produce including cabbage, strawberries, and bush beans - all free for the picking 24/7. Birds chirp and sing sweetly from the limbs of shade trees, and benches offer a place to rest and think between the vegetable plots.

Now, a grassroots effort is under way to share the story of Somer’s Garden with the nation.

Michelle Obama is touring gardens nationwide modeled after her vegetable plot at the White House, which she planted in 2009 to promote healthy eating. The idea took root. It sprouted, “Let’s Move,” a childhood obesity prevention initiative she launched in 2010. Now, she is spending her final year as first lady traveling the country visiting school and community gardens.

Somer’s Garden will be one of Obama’s stops if an ongoing effort succeeds.

Bringing Food Forests to Northeast Florida in partnership with the nonprofit Somer Sunshine Foundation, which was established by Thompson to help child victims and their families, Sundance Fresh Farm based in St. Johns County, and the nonprofit Eastside Environmental Coalition in Jacksonville, initiated an online petition along with a social media campaign to persuade Obama to visit the garden on its first anniversary.

Thompson couldn’t be reached for comment.

Posted on the White House website, the petition was launched March 11.

“The petition drive is two-fold. It’s to show her that the community wants this, the community supports us and they want her “Let’s Move” initiative to visit Somer’s Garden,” said Jolinda Kohl, co-founder of Bringing Food Forests to Northeast Florida.

The other aspect is to get the community involved in bringing Obama to the garden so the story of Somer and the community can be told, she said.

Somer’s Garden epitomizes Obama’s garden initiative. Somer’s Garden also is a story of triumph in the face of unspeakable tragedy, Kohl said.

“We all feel strongly that Somer’s Garden it is a powerful story to tell and it would benefit the nation to share what we’re doing and what we’ve done,” said Kohl, adding the garden illustrates how a community comes together during a tragedy.

As the first publicly accessible food forest garden in Northeast Florida, it also shows a path for community gardens to become self-sustaining using permaculture techniques, she said.

“People are invited to go on in whenever they want and harvest or plant or take part. We just think that goes with her mission .” Kohl said of Obama’s garden and “Let’s Move” initiative.

Right now, the garden is only at half to three-quarters of its capacity. Volunteers are needed to help finish planting, and to assist with upcoming projects they’d ideally like to complete in time for the anniversary, Kohl said.

Kohl said they are working on signs to let people know the name of the garden, that it’s open to the public and to explain its purpose and origins. Lighting also is needed for the garden, she said.

“Also we’re working on the wheelchair-accessible bed. It’s a raised vegetable bed that we’re going to be putting in this year,” Kohl said.

Kohl also said the garden shows what can be done what can be done in an area of the country that struggles with food insecurity and food deserts. They want Obama and the rest of the nation to know that people are making a difference throughout Northeast Florida working to solve food scarcity issues in the area.

“They are using education and are getting people moving in order to make things happen for the betterment of the community,” Kohl said of the message they hope to share with Somer’s Garden.


Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, https://www.jacksonville.com

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