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Tucson J community garden to plant seeds of commemoration, good health

Shay Hammer, who died at age 15, inspired the community garden being created at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. (Susanne Kaplan)

It is forbidden to live in a town that does not have a green garden.

— Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 4:12

Sustainability, growing local and urban gardens are trending. But growing your own food has been a staple of a healthy lifestyle over the last century, from the early Zionists in Palestine to the-back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s in the United States.

Gardens nourish a community. What better way to cherish the memory of those who died too young or who suffered from incurable illnesses?

The Tucson Jewish Community Center will remember Tucsonans who have died with the establishment of the Shay-Shay Community Garden. The garden will be named in honor of Shay Emma Hammer, a 15-year-old Tucsonan who died on March 1, 2011.

“The Kaplan and Hammer families were inspired by the life of our daughter and granddaughter, Shay Emma ‘Shay-Shay’ Hammer, to plant the seed that would become the Shay-Shay Garden,” her mother, Susanne Kaplan, told the AJP.

Kaplan has been involved with Community Gardens of Tucson, an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization that maintains community gardens, encouraging Tucson residents to grow food successfully in their neighborhoods. CGT will oversee the Tucson J’s community garden.

Thirty individual garden plots will be ready to start planting this fall, says Lynn Davis, director of arts and culture at the J. The site, which will be located south of the pool area and east of the tennis courts, will include a gathering area and a memorial gate that will display names of loved ones who have passed away on decorative steel leaves.

Community members are welcome to join the garden project by purchasing a plot (a membership at the J is not required).

“As a child growing up in North London, we had a large back garden and no need for an allotment (as they are known in England),” says Julian Parnaby, the J’s member relations coordinator. “However, when my parents moved to a smaller house, they rented an allotment a couple of miles away, put up a small garden shed, and for a few years grew an assortment of winter and summer fruits and vegetables. It was a very social activity and provided many an opportunity to talk about the weather, get gardening advice from others and drink a lot of tea.”

Parnaby and his wife, Ori, the Jewish Tucson concierge, who is based at the J, have already reserved a garden plot. “I like the idea of a community garden because of the support, education, community and set up,” says Ori. “I’m a total beginner and I’m not especially green-thumbed so I need as much help as I can get.”

Some of the garden plots have been reserved for departments at the J, such as special needs and early childhood education, says Davis, “so that gardening/ecology/healthy eating can all become integral, hands-on pieces of our programming. There are also early childhood curricula specific to Jewish values and gardening that will likely be employed.”

In addition, she says, the community garden coalesces with the JCC Association’s Greening Initiative, JCC Grows: http://jcca.org/jcc-grows/, which fosters healthy food and a hunger-relief initiative. It also connects with the J’s center-wide wellness initiative.

For Kaplan, the garden’s growth takes on a larger meaning.

Helping create a new community garden at the J became a way for her to encourage healthy living, rather than focusing on her grief.

“People who are disabled in some areas often develop exceptionally in others, says Kaplan. “Shay’s exceptional gifts were a big, open heart and a palpably loving presence. Although she could not use a lot of words she managed to make remarkable heartfelt connections.

“Shay had a single mutation in a single gene that dramatically altered the direction of her life. That mutation resulted in abnormal electrical activity in her brain,” she explains, “which caused seizures and interfered significantly with her development, ultimately causing her death.”

Shay was a lifelong member of the J, notes her mother. “She also had a curious interest in soil, water and plants. Shay was often seen carrying a brightly colored plastic shovel, she loved splashing in puddles and watching water droplets fly through the air and she enjoyed touching plants (including cactus!).”

An ash tree has already been planted in the J’s sculpture garden in honor of Shay. The plaque under it reads: “What the caterpillar perceives is the end, to the butterfly is just the beginning,” says Kaplan.

“When the J approached the Community Gardens of Tucson to explore the idea of opening a garden it was an obvious confluence of interests. It would be fantastic to create a memorial community garden and name it for the girl who loved to dig.”

Since Shay’s death in 2011, “I’m out of the emotional woods for the most part but still get hit pretty hard from time to time,” she says. “The beauty of having lost someone so important [as my daughter] gave me an in to connect deeply with all people who have ever lost loved ones. It’s a collective sharing of grief that lightens everyone’s load. That’s why the concept of a community memorial garden is so attractive to me.”

“The garden will be a celebration of those who are gone in a space that is all about nurturing new life,” says Kaplan.

To reserve a garden plot, contact CGT at 795-8823 or [email protected]. The cost will be $18 per month per plot, which covers the irrigation system and water, use of tools, a monthly session with a master gardener and a quarterly newsletter. Reduced-fee plots are available for low-income gardeners.