'It's not happy memories anymore': Mom still hurt over District 94's abrupt removal of memorial tree
The hurt is still there and Lee Ann Meiborg says it won't go away anytime soon.
The autumn blaze maple and plaque that stood outside West Chicago High School for 15 years were a memorial to her daughter, Amanda, the Class of 2002 valedictorian who died a year later at age 19 from a rare form of cancer.
Sometime this spring, crews working on a school expansion project unceremoniously and without warning or explanation ripped out the tree and plaque.
"That's the place we went to remember her," Meiborg says. "It was a living memorial. Amanda would have loved that tree."
Meiborg visited it often. At Christmas, she hung ornaments -- some with special meaning, others because they sparkled. As the maple grew, friends came with ladders and poles to help decorate it.
She put miniature pumpkins at the base at Halloween and laid flowers on Amanda's birthday in February and on the anniversary of her death. She spread mulch in the spring and pulled weeds in the summer. Sometimes she would hug the tree; sometimes she would just drive by to say "hello."
Here's the amazing part, she says: "None of the kids ever messed with anything. The students have been so respectful -- more respectful than the higher-ups."
It was a place filled with memories until this month when Meiborg went to the west side of campus only to find the tree and her daughter's plaque were gone.
School officials say the tree had to be removed to make room for construction. But no one told Meiborg.
After many calls and emails, someone finally found the plaque and returned it.
Meiborg heard this week from school board President Renee Yackey, who apologized for the district's lack of sensitivity. "She was very, very kind and I was grateful for her call," Meiborg says.
And finally, late Wednesday afternoon, she heard from Superintendent Doug Domeracki, who apologized for not contacting her sooner. He told her he didn't know the maple was a memorial tree, but he has since directed the management company overseeing the construction project to alert school officials if they come across anything else like it during their work.
"It was like a little victory," Meiborg said Wednesday night, "but kind of a hollow one because the situation hasn't changed. The tree is still gone."
It's sad, because the school always had deep meaning for Lee Ann Meiborg. She lives in Warrenville, but her family once lived next to the school. So close, she says, that if she looked out her window she could have seen Amanda's tree.
"Amanda actually found the house," she says. "She came home from registration and said, 'Mom, there's the cutest little house right next to the school.'"
Lee Ann's brother graduated from West Chicago. So did her children.
"Now, with the tree gone and the way they did it -- it's not happy memories anymore."
'My brain just broke'
Katie Kammes' family has deep roots in West Chicago and she's running a GoFundMe page that has raised more than $1,300 toward a goal of $2,500 to plant a new tree in Amanda's honor. Katie and Lee Ann Meiborg say if they reach their goal, they want to place a tree at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle.
They care about trees at the arboretum, Katie says, and "it'll be there for a really long time."
Katie met Amanda in third grade and they remained best friends through high school. They were very different girls with very different personalities: Amanda the quiet one, Katie the goofy one.
"She was always very accepting of everyone and who they were," Katie says. "She was reserved, but she was never afraid to laugh."
Katie said Amanda never wanted attention.
"Amanda herself would have been comically annoyed by all the attention she's getting," she says.
But when Katie saw Lee Ann Meiborg's Facebook post about the missing tree, she says, "my brain just broke."
She's confused and angry about why no one called to tell Amanda's mother they were removing the tree. Maybe they could have held a ceremony. Maybe they could have tried to find another option.
The school board since has agreed to study its policies when it comes to memorials and gifts. Yackey says she'd like the school to encourage scholarships or grants rather than plantings or structures.
Katie likes that idea.
"We're feeling better, but it's not ideal," she says. "I'm just really curious about what actually happened. Someone had to pick up the memorial stone and take it someplace. It seems odd that at no point in the process did anyone think they should contact someone."
On Wednesday, Yackey told the Daily Herald Lee Ann Meiborg should have been told in advance the tree was going to be removed.
"Since that did not occur," Yackey said, "the board's expectation is that Mrs. Meiborg receive a formal verbal apology from our current administration, and provide a report to the board about the outreach."
That apology came later in the day. Meiborg says she appreciated the superintendent's call but it felt like it was too little too late. "Now I don't care," she said.
'Piece of my heart'
After their conversation earlier this week, Meiborg sent an email to Yackey and asked her to share it with the board.
This is part of what she said:
"No one truly knows the heartbreak and pain of losing a child until it happens to them. And this is what Amanda's tree meant to me: Besides being a lovely place to remember Amanda, this tree was a living symbol of hope and growth, plus it was good for the environment -- which Amanda would have loved ...
"The tree planting was a big family and friend event, with a violinist who had played in the orchestra with Amanda. We held small special remembrances on Amanda's fifth and 10th death anniversaries.
"Cutting down Amanda's tree cut out yet another piece of my heart."