Rae's Garden commemorates beloved student at Spaulding School in Gurnee
Submitted by Len Wojciechowicz
When staff, students, and visitors approach the entrance to Spaulding School in Gurnee, they are greeted by a beautiful garden filled with a variety of plants and flowers. Pink flowers, soft grasses, small bushes filled with purple color and natural mulch cover a once barren piece of ground. Staff stop to admire a monarch butterfly that has stopped for a rest, visitors smile as they admire the well-groomed grounds while walking a student inside, and the sun drenches the area with warmth and peace.
In front of the new plantings, a white oval sign adorned with some of the same flowers as those in the garden indicates it is "Rae's Garden." Purple angel's wings sit on either side, and a little lower the sign reads: "Dedicated 2023."
The sign, the garden, and additional future projects are the effort of Penny and Tony Shepherd. All of the work is both a labor of love and a way to ease a fraction of the heartbreak from losing the most important person in their lives: their granddaughter Rae Shepherd.
Fourteen months ago, on July 24, 2022, Spaulding School and the District 56 family lost one of its brightest young stars in Rae Shepherd. Rae was only 7 years old and in first grade at Spaulding.
Just eight days earlier, Rae was a spirited, loving and happy girl. Rae loved music, dancing, everything nature and toasted bagels with Nutella dripping off the sides. She was a swimmer, ballet dancer, gymnast and beginning violinist. Rae also had two furry companions in Bruno, her dog, and Oreo, her cat.
Rae was taken by a horrible, lightning-fast cancer called medulloblastoma and a rare arteriovenous malformation. She fought valiantly through her last days. Penny and Tony, who raised Rae, were with her every moment as a team of doctors and nurses did their best to save her.
To honor Rae and provide a lasting legacy of her life, her grandparents cleared an area near the entrance to Spaulding School and created "Rae's Garden." Rae's Garden is filled with some of Rae's favorite flowers such as "Autumn Joy" sedum, "Hameln" and "Burgundy Bunny" fountain grasses, butterfly weed, prairie smoke, a variety of boxwoods, and huge hibiscus called "Spinderella." Also included are lavender, one of Rae's favorite scents. Penny and Tony are proud to say that Rae could name every one of the plants. As fall approached, Penny and Tony plan to plant tulip and allium bulbs, more of Rae's favorites.
In the middle of the garden sits a little statue of a dog in a yoga pose. Rae and Penny would often do "Cosmic Kids" video yoga together. Rae would enjoy putting her hands together, closing her eyes, and saying "Namaste." The statue is a tribute to Rae's love of animals and yoga.
The "Rae's Garden" sign was designed by Tom Kim, a family friend, graphic artist and brain cancer survivor. He made sure to include Rae's favorite flowers. The sign was expertly made and designed by the Laska family from North Shore Sign. The height of the sign was set to Rae's height in first grade.
Just beyond Rae's Garden is a smaller staff picnic area that has seen better days. The Shepherds connected with an Eagle Scout candidate, who is currently restoring that area and building two new picnic tables.
On the other side of the school, the Shepherds have begun a complete restoration of an overgrown and neglected area that was being overtaken by weeds. Penny and Tony first cleared the area. Now the fenced-off land is going through a process called solarization, which is a nonchemical way to neutralize growth, soil disease and the like. In time, the Shepherds will rejuvenate that area also.
Not only did Rae love flowers, plants and nature, but she was also an avid book-lover whose bedroom was filled with hundreds of books of every kind. After Rae passed, a neighbor set up a Go-Fund-Me site in her name. A small portion of those proceeds helped offset some medical expenses, but the rest of the money was used to purchase a book for every student at Spaulding School during the last school year. The Shepherds plan to continue to do so every year for as long as they can.
The Shepherds would like to thank Spaulding School Principal Dr. Ellen Maurer and District 56 Maintenance and Facilities Director Sean Smith for their help with the outside projects and Spaulding librarian Lizzy Isbell for her help coordinating the book donation effort.
Spaulding School is a better place because of the generosity and hard work of Penny and Tony Shepherd. But Spaulding School is doubly-blessed because it was attended by a girl whose smile was as bright as the summer sun, whose spirit was always boundless, and whose legacy will forever be a part of the school's history: Rae Shepherd.
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