Two trees for Amanda: How West Chicago community rallied around mom's loss
Nearly three weeks ago, Lee Ann Meiborg shed tears of sadness and anger as she sat in her car outside West Chicago High School, where a tree planted 15 years ago as a memorial to her late daughter, Amanda, had been removed without warning, explanation or ceremony.
Friday, she wept again, but these tears were of gratitude for a community that has rallied to make it possible for Meiborg to have not just one tree to honor Amanda's memory, but two -- one at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, the other in West Chicago's Reed-Keppler Park.
The arboretum memorial will be made possible thanks to a GoFundMe page that has generated more than $2,300 toward a goal of $2,500. And the Reed-Keppler tree will be made possible thanks to a donation from Alex Carbonara, the owner of DuPage Cremations and Memorial Chapel in West Chicago, who heard about Amanda's tree and wanted to do something about it.
"I'm feeling better," Meiborg said. "Now people can visit one tree at the arboretum or the other tree at the park. I'm going to visit both. A lot."
Amanda Meiborg was a valedictorian in the West Chicago Class of 2002. She played violin -- her mom remembers her in the orchestra pit for "Fiddler on the Roof" -- and was a member of the Botany Club. Lee Ann still has a poster board Amanda made featuring dried leaves they collected at the arboretum and label with their scientific names. She got an A-plus.
So when Amanda died at age 19 from a rare form of cancer, it seemed natural for her family and friends to plant an autumn blaze maple on the west side of the high school campus and install a plaque at its base in her memory. Her mom was a frequent visitor. She decorated the tree for the holidays and mulched and weeded around it. Sometimes she hugged it. She viewed it as the perfect tribute -- a living thing to keep Amanda's memory alive.
Then, on June 3, Meiborg stopped to visit and discovered the tree had been removed as part of an expansion project at the school. No one told her it would be taken down. For a while, no one seemed to know where the plaque had gone. And for too many days, no one in the school administration seemed to care.
This week, after stories started appearing about the tree's removal -- the tale even has been shared by media in the United Kingdom -- Meiborg heard from school board President Renee Yackey and finally Superintendent Doug Domeracki. Yackey admitted the school had been insensitive. Both said the board will examine its policies for dealing with memorials.
Amanda's lifelong friend Katie Kammes started the GoFundMe page with a goal of raising enough money to have a memorial tree at the arboretum.
Meanwhile, Carbonara heard about the story and couldn't stop thinking about it. One night, he sat down with his wife at dinner and they decided they had to help.
"We're pretty sensitive to this kind of thing," he said. "The sooner you can replace what is lost, the better. I could use the resources I have to get it done and behind the family as quickly as possible."
So he called Mayor Ruben Pineda with an offer to find a large autumn blaze maple that could be planted at Reed-Keppler. He also would donate a granite plaque to be placed at its base.
Pineda himself has three memorial trees in Reed-Keppler -- one for his father-in-law, one for a longtime mentor and another for former Mayor Michael Kwasman.
"Every time I'm up there, I stop to talk to them and I give the trees a little kiss," he said.
He wanted Lee Ann to know he wanted a tree to honor Amanda in West Chicago. He wanted her to know West Chicagoans take care of their own.
But Meiborg was reluctant.
She didn't want to offend anyone who had contributed to the GoFundMe page. She didn't want to do the wrong thing.
She talked to Pineda for about 15 minutes Friday. The mayor suggested she accept the donation and maybe use the GoFundMe money to create a scholarship in Amanda's name. But Lee Ann is still stung by the response from the high school and, for now, can't imagine working with administrators there.
OK, Pineda said. Then why not do both trees?
And that's when Meiborg said, yeah, let's do two.
At 8 a.m. next Thursday, Meiborg, Pineda and staff members from West Chicago Park District will walk through Reed-Keppler to check out potential sites for Amanda's tree. Based on the size of the maple, staff members will recommend the best spot.
Kramer Tree Specialists has agreed to plant the tree. A pair of landscape companies, Greenway Landscape Nursery Inc. and Teerling Nursery, are working together to find the proper maple.
The rest will be up to Lee Ann.
She is trying to come to grips with everything that has happened in the past few weeks. When all this started, she was sobbing alone in her car. Now, so many folks from the community have rallied to help her -- and it means a lot because West Chicago always was important to Amanda and it's still important to Lee Ann.
The tears still come, but now there is happiness mixed with the sadness.
Meiborg knows they will come at least once more.
"When I see the trees planted, that will really hit me hard," she said. "I am so grateful."