The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

DePaul students help Garfield Park school build memorial garden for victims of gun violence

Students of Leif Ericson Academy and the surrounding community now have their own green space to reflect and repair after losing their loved ones.
Rodolfo Zagal
Ericson students amazed by the new rose bushes in the healing garden.

In East Garfield Park, a group of DePaul students often circle around an island of greenery filled with rose bushes and benches. 

This healing garden opened in October 2023 and has since blossomed into a place where members of the community can remember their loved ones lost to gun violence. It’s also a space for reflection.

“It’s a beautiful environment where we can sit, relax and think about ourselves and see how we are doing,” said Fr. Alphonse Twizerimana, a DePaul international student.

The idea for the healing garden, Twizerimana said, expanded when students and teachers were experiencing losses of loved ones, relatives and neighbors. They needed space for mentoring and counseling. Students and faculty came to school and expressed grief to one another. 

Poverty only worsens the trauma. “It affects them psychologically, affects them spiritually,” Twizerimana said.

The Egan Office has been working with Ericson Elementary for a year to create a healing space for the community members affected by violence in their neighborhood.

The Monsignor John J. Egan Office of Urban Education and Community Partnerships (UECP) partnered with Leif Ericson Elementary Scholastic Academy to engage with various non-profits, schools and communities in Chicago to create more opportunities for involvement for students.  The healing garden has been a result of the partnerships. 

Twizerimana and other Egan office volunteers have been supporting the new community garden at Ericson. Twizerimana says the garden offers a safe place for students, teachers and parents to meet for self-reflection, counseling or mentoring.

Erin Copland, a counselor at Ericson Elementary, said she hopes she and other faculty can use the space for outdoor classes and for self-reflection when the weather gets warm again.  

Copland says the memorial garden is a place where students can “just learn how to calm down and manage their feelings and whatever it may be, if it’s lost, if it’s stress, if it’s sadness, anger, or even if it could be happiness.” 

Chondolyn Floyd, a teacher at Ericson Elementary gives speech to students at opening ceremony of the healing garden. (Rodolfo Zagal)
Alphonse Twizermana and Mary Willis McNeely, Ericson principal stand along side students waiting to cut ribbon. (Rodolfo Zagal)

“We need a place where people can start thinking about how they want to live their lives in a way that is meaningful for them,” Copland said. 

The East Garfield Park neighborhood has experienced gun violence that also has affected students at the school. 

“It’s very real to a lot of our kids that guns are a part of their daily lives. They are impacted, and we’re trying to make a community at school a safe place for them where they know that they can talk about these things openly. The garden is another tool and hopefully a place where they can let maybe those things out in the way that they need to,” Copland said. 

Copland wants this garden to be a place to reset, have fun outside and go back to their classrooms to learn. “That’s healing. Having fun is a part of healing as well,” she said. 

Chondolyn Floyd is a writing teacher at Ericson Elementary and a coordinator liaison for the memorial garden. She worked with DePaul students, Twizerimana and school counselors to build the garden and make sure they’re meeting the students’ needs. 

The idea of a healing came from a previous counselor at Ericson, Muriel McDonald. According to Floyd, McDonald did a survey about grief and thought the school should create space for Ericson students.

Floyd said Ericson faculty member Michelle Banks died last year and was very engaged in the community. The husband of principal of Ericson Elementary, Brady McNeely, also died last year, she said. 

“There’s a high rate of mortality here in the Garfield Park area. And I think that having a space here is something that we can use not just for our students but for the entire community,” Floyd said.

Floyd says Ericson Elementary is partnering with locals to provide services they themselves can’t give to the students. Fifth City Child Development Institute is a non-profit daycare center that is planning on having their family engagement day in the healing garden next summer. Ericson hopes to get new students from daycare into their kindergarten.

Floyd, an eighth-grade graduate from Ericson, is also a DePaul alumna. 

“It’s a passion for me, to give back to my school,” said Floyd, who only discovered DePaul was a partner school to Ericson when she began work there.

“There’s no mistake in where we are placed,” Floyd said. “No mistakes in the connections we have in this life journey. Everything happens for a reason.”

More to Discover