Vickroy: Girl’s garden blooms on, 20 years after her death
BY DONNA VICKROY firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dvickroy June 11, 2013 10:14PM
Updated: July 13, 2013 6:06AM
It’s love that keeps Nicole’s Garden blooming after all these years.
Nicole Abramite was just 8 years old when she succumbed to Prader-Willi syndrome in the fall of 1992. As her family and friends struggled to deal with the loss, someone at Fierke Education Center in Oak Forest, where Nicole was a third-grader at the time, came up with an idea.
Why not plant something in her memory?
The students not only rallied around the suggestion, they helped raise money to buy a small pink profusion crab apple tree. On June 4, 1993, one day before Nicole would have turned 9, children, staff and village officials gathered near a playground to plant the tree.
“Each kid had a cupful of dirt to dump into the hole,” said Nicole’s teacher, Nancy Pierz.
Today that tree anchors a garden that includes flowers, lilac bushes, mementos and wind chimes. There are heart-shaped stone decorations and an engraved marker.
Even now, two decades after her passing, children stop and wonder about the little girl who left this world too soon. Some of the more sensitive students ask questions, and social worker Terri O’Toole is there to answer them. When they hear the story, some place flowers at the site.
“If I had to describe this garden in one word, it would be ‘love,’ L-O-V-E,” said Alan Abramite, Nicole’s dad and caretaker of the garden.
“So many people loved Nicole, and continue to love her,” he said. “That love is reflected in this beautiful garden.”
Alan tends to the respite area, which is fronted by benches where visitors can sit and reflect. When she was a student there, Nicole, whose condition limited her physically, spent many recesses sitting on those benches.
Alan weeds, adds mulch and trims the bushes. He also decorates for holidays. With Flag Day upon us this week and Independence Day just around the corner, he is able to decorate in his favorite theme — patriotic.
Many times, Charla Kukowski, an aide and lunchroom supervisor during Nicole’s school days, has driven past the school on Sunday mornings and spied Alan tending to the site.
“It’s very touching,” she said.
When Nicole was born days after Halloween in 1992, doctors knew something was wrong. She was lethargic, and Alan and Joie Abramite, Nicole’s mom, feared their third child might die before her first birthday.
Nicole pulled through, and Alan and Joie embarked on a long journey to find a diagnosis for her condition.
After many tests and lots of speculation, at last, a doctor at University of Chicago Hospitals figured out the problem. Nicole was on the high end of the spectrum for Prader-Willi syndrome, a condition that results from an abnormality on the 15th chromosome.
Prader-Willi causes low muscle tone, short stature if not treated with growth hormone and chronic hunger.
“Nicole was slow but she had a wonderful sense of humor,” Joie said. “Everyone loved her.”
“I likened her to a high-functioning Down syndrome child,” Pierz said. “She was always happy.”
Like all Prader-Willi children, Nicole had an insatiable appetite. Pierz still chuckles at the girl’s many attempts to get extra food.
“She’d always be sure to get some for her brothers (Mark and Joe), too,” Pierz said. “She was always looking out for her brothers.”
A special-needs child, Nicole attended Fulton School in Tinley Park for early childhood education and was then transferred to Jack Hille in Oak Forest for kindergarten through second grade.
Even though she was new to Fierke in the fall of ’92, about the time Community Consolidated School District 146 began its sweeping inclusion program, the other students immediately welcomed her into the ranks, Pierz said.
Unfortunately, those new friendships were short-lived. A few weeks before she passed, Nicole contracted pneumonia and was hospitalized. The additional symptoms were too much for her already enlarged heart and she died Nov. 2.
“It’s the worst thing in the world to lose a child,” Joie said. “Sure, she’d been in the hospital a lot, but she’d always recovered. This time, she didn’t.”
When students learned that the little girl who loved Disney, camping and the color pink had passed, they were understandably upset.
Joie remembers the principal calling and asking if the Abramites would like the school to plant a living memorial.
“I asked, ‘What’s a living memorial?’ ” she said.
When she saw the tree, and the outpouring of love and compassion that came with it, she said, she was overwhelmed with joy.
The following year, Danielle Carlson, one of Nicole’s classmates, wrote a poem titled, “Nicole’s Garden.”
“That’s how this ended up becoming a garden, Nicole’s garden,” Alan said.
Fierke Principal Mark French said it’s important to memorialize those who pass.
“It’s important for the school and for the community,” he said. “Nicole’s garden helps to beautify our campus while letting us remember one of our students.”
He said other similar plantings have taken place on school grounds in memory of other students who have died.
Today, Nicole’s garden has blossomed beyond anyone’s expectations. In 2005, it received a City of Oak Forest Beautification Award.
“It’s a place for grieving, but also a place for loving. It’s a way for us to remember her,” Alan said. “Our daughter’s not here anymore but she’s still here in this garden — bigger than life.”