In a secluded courtyard on the campus of Southport Elementary School, a little garden grows.
The garden is modest and unassuming. It has a few bare patches and lacks a walkway. It is always in need of weeding and watering.
Still, it is a source of great pride for the entire school.
Because what has grown out of this little garden is more lasting and beautiful than any plant could ever be.
With every freshly watered bloom and lovingly tended flower bed, in the handmade artwork and handwritten messages that cover the courtyard walls, what Southport Elementary students are really cultivating is the memory of a classmate and friend.
After a year of tending the soil in his honor, last week, students joined teachers and family members in officially dedicating the garden to Teddy Hiatt, who died in August 2009 at the age of nine.
“For those of you who had the pleasure of calling Teddy your friend, you know that he would have loved to be here to see the artwork, to watch birds and butterflies and bugs, and to be a part of nature,” Southport Elementary School art teacher Katy O’Neill said during the dedication ceremony on October 13.
Shortly after beginning fourth grade, Teddy fell from a tree and broke his neck. He was in a coma for five days before being taken off life support.
Still reeling from the sudden and tragic loss last school year, O’Neill and her classes quickly turned to the place Hiatt loved the most — the outdoors — for comfort.
Almost as quickly, O’Neill’s idea to transform the quiet courtyard into a thriving garden became a school-wide labor of love.
Before and after school, students raked leaves, pulled weeds and watered flowers.
During art class, they made clay plaques and decorated birdbaths with ceramic tiles.
“The kids needed something to do; they wanted to do something for Teddy,” O’Neill recalled in a follow-up interview. “It’s hard to talk about death and grief with kids.”
In the garden, she added, it was a little easier, and not just for the students.
Teachers and staff were soon working in the garden and creating their own pieces of artwork in memory of Teddy.
They pooled their money to buy bird feeders, fences and a bench.
Then parents began dropping off supplies. Walmart in Southport donated nearly all of the plants.
“Teddy was just a sweet little boy. … He was a cool kid,” O’Neill noted.
She said a message a student carved into a sculpture says it all: “Teddy was loved by everyone he knew.”
He was certainly special to O’Neill. Not only was he an enthusiastic art student, he was her neighbor.
And he also happened to be the son of her former student, Heather Skipper.
So, for O’Neill, the garden became her place to grieve and, eventually, to find peace.
“It helped me to feel like I did something positive for the kids. I feel like we are letting a little bit of Teddy into a whole bunch of lives,” she said. “I could never sit here at the table and talk (to students) about Teddy. But I’d be okay out there because, out there, he is not all the way gone. His spirit is there.”
Keeping Teddy’s memory alive is now O’Neill’s personal mission.
To that end, she started a scholarship fund through Communities In Schools (CIS) of Brunswick County last year in his name.
Surfer’s Restaurant agreed to donate proceeds from its annual Labor Day Surf-Off, and beachwear company Sundek signed on as a scholarship sponsor.
The first $1,000 Teddy Hiatt Memorial Scholarship was awarded to a North Brunswick High School senior earlier this year.
O’Neill has organized a shag dance and student art show at Southport Community Building to raise additional funds for the next scholarship.
She plans to give at least $1,000 to one graduating senior in Brunswick County every year for the next eight years, when Teddy himself would have graduated from high school.
“Again, for me, it gives closure. To help someone go on to college with this scholarship, it’s like (he or she) is doing what Teddy would have been doing,” she said.
And O’Neill wants the garden, in its seasonal cycles of growth and decline, to help her young students make sense of life, death and all the complex transitions in between.
“Losing a friend so early makes an impact,” she said. “It has made an impact on me. I think every moment could be their last, my last. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. I don’t think it is negative. I don’t take anything for granted.”
As she assured students at the dedication of the Teddy Hiatt Memorial Garden that it was “always okay to cry,” she asked them to also move forward and celebrate life by nurturing the living tribute that has grown out of their sadness.
“Our garden shows hope in the future,” she said. “Like many things in life, it is ever-changing, has beauty, as well as thorns, and can be a place of inspiration, meditation and friendship.”
Fundraiser to benefit Hiatt scholarship
Art and Soles, a fundraiser to benefit the Teddy Hiatt Memorial Scholarship, is scheduled for 2 to 5 p.m. on Sunday, November 14, at Southport Community Building.
The event includes shagging, with music provided by DJ Tommy Robbins. Artwork created by Southport Elementary School students enrolled in CIS’s after-school program will also be on display and for sale.
Finger foods and desserts will be served and a cash bar will be available.
There is a $5 donation per person to attend.