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Stateside: Family of Oxford shooting victim breaks ground on memorial garden

On Sunday, the farmer's market pavilion in Seymour Lake Township Park was covered with balloons in shades of purple and white. Ai St. Juliana formed clusters of balloons into flowers with five petals. Near the entrance, her husband Steve hung a flag. On it, the white outline of a cherry blossom with Japanese characters at the center.

Ai St. Juliana, a Japanese woman, and her husband, Steve, a white man, each put an arm around each other. They don shirts in different shades of blue, and stand in front of a purple flag bearing Hana's emblem - a flower with the kanji character for "Hana" in the center.
Hana St. Juliana’s parents, Steve and Ai, stand in front of a purple flag bearing Hana’s symbol. “I’m just so happy to see this many people who are trying to support Hana’s Garden.” Ai said.

“You can see the five petals with the kanji for Hana in the middle—her name," explained Steve St. Juliana.

Hana St. Juliana–Steve and Ai’s daughter–was one of four students killed when a classmate open fire at Oxford High School in November 2021. As they grappled with the grief of losing their daughter, the St. Julianas looked for a way to keep her memory alive in the Oxford community.

What they landed on was a garden. Hana means “flower” in Japanese. Hana’s Garden will be a memorial to their daughter and to the three other young victims: Madisyn Baldwin, Tate Myre, and Justin Shilling.

"I'm not sure it's any place could really capture the essence of Hana," said Steve. "But hopefully it is a place that, just with the beauty that it brings, is a place that people can take a moment, remember and appreciate a little bit of a peaceful and beautiful place."

Steve says it is easy to get stuck in grief, but the project has given them something to focus on.

"It's so easy just to stop moving after something like this. And it's something that has helped us to have a goal to work towards, and to help us keep moving forward a step at a time."

While the St. Juliana family has been at the heart of this effort, it’s taken a village to make it to Sunday’s groundbreaking and fundraiser. One friend spent hours making a balloon garland for the entrance. Another with a floral business sold bouquets.

The St. Julianas' neighbor Jennifer Curtis helped organize the event. She ran around with a clipboard, making sure things went smoothly—even as rain clouds moved in and out of the sky.

"I pretty much did not sleep last night, so I think my mind started spinning and watching the Weather Channel around 1:00 in the morning," she said.

A collage featuring different iterations of a shirt that was designed for the fundraiser. Each shirt features an illustration of a smiling Hana at the entrance to a garden. Below her in bold letters are the words, “Live every moment, laugh every day, love beyond words.”
Many folks came wearing shirts they had bought at previous fundraisers. Jennifer Curtis (right) shows off one of the designs. The lavender shirt features a smiling Hana at the entrance to a garden, and the words, “Live every moment, laugh every day, love beyond words.”

Curtis has been involved with the project since it’s earliest days.

When she helped put together the first pop-up shop fundraiser in 2022, the scope was much smaller: a bench and a tree.

Now, the vision is a lot more ambitious.

The focal point of the garden will be a large sculptural tree made of corten steel—which will give the metal a rusted look.

"And this tree has four rings at the top that are going to be lit up at night that represent the four children who are lost," explained Chris Nordstrom, a landscape architect who worked with the family to come up with the garden's design. "It will have an American wisteria growing up the trunk of it so that those kind of spilled out. And you'll have these lovely lavender flowers."

Curtis said it’s been exciting to see the project evolve into what she calls a “masterpiece," and she says this park, a hub of the community, is the perfect spot for it. It's where everyone takes their kids to play sports or go to the playground.

"So I think having that connection to our community and then having a tranquil space, not just for Hana, but for Tate, and Madisyn, and Justin as well. I think it will feel good to remember and be in a beautiful space. So I'm really hopeful that this is going to help us heal maybe a little bit more."

The community of Oxford seems to have rallied around the project. Hundreds of people came out to the groundbreaking and fundraiser on Sunday. They bought t-shirts and baseball caps with Hana’s symbol on them. They ate tacos and ice cream from the food trucks lined up on the circle drive out front. The local Meijer store donated $10,000 to the project. IBEW Local 58—the electrician's union—gave another $20,000.

One by one, the people who have helped make Hana’s Garden a reality took to a small stage to talk about about what the project means to them.

"As most of you know, she makes it very difficult to describe her in words because my word wouldn't invoke the happiness and humor she effortlessly handed out. She was just always sharing, whether that was her smile, laughter, sarcasm, kindness, or her eccentric ideas. There was just never a dull moment. She was the glue of our family," Reina told the crowd.

In the nearly two years since she lost her sister, Reina has been a tireless advocate for her sister. She’s fought for an independent investigation into what happened on November 30, 2021. And she’s done everything she can to make sure that her little sister is never forgotten.

As Reina spoke, many in the audience became visibly teary-eyed.

"There are just countless places and things that remind me of Hana," she continued. "But we know that not everyone had this much time or memories of her. So we wanted to make a space where we could share the life she brought to our lives with all of you."

Reina St. Juliana remembers her sister, Hana, and thanks the crowd for their support at the fundraiser and groundbreaking.
Ronia Cabansag
Michigan Radio
Reina St. Juliana remembers her sister, Hana, and thanks the crowd for their support at the fundraiser and groundbreaking.

After the speeches, the St. Juliana family walked over to a nearby white tent. Underneath, stuck into the ground, were seven lavender-colored shovels—each printed with the same cherry blossom and Hana’s kanji.

Steve, Ai, their kids, and the garden designers each took hold of one and pushed it into the ground. The crowd was still as the family makes the first symbolic step toward bringing the vision of Hana’s Garden to life.

There is still a long way to go before this plot of grass becomes the memorial laid out in the architectural sketches. All the profits from Sunday's event will go to the Hana St. Juliana Memorial Fund, whose first project is funding the construction and maintenance of the garden. The Four County Community Foundation holds the fund as an endowment.

Steve St. Juliana said the plan is to have all of the hardscaping done for the garden this fall–with planting tentatively scheduled for next spring. He said there is still a significant funding gap when it comes to the money that will be needed to complete and maintain Hana’s Garden for years to come. The project is continuing to raise money through an online store and seeking out more corporate sponsors as well.

Still, Steve said, today felt like a significant step forward.

“Just the act of putting the shovel in, it just felt like it was finally real.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post misspelled Hana St. Juliana and Madisyn Baldwin's first names in a quote. We regret the error and have corrected it above.

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April Van Buren is a producer for <i>Stateside</i>. She produces interviews for air as well as web and social media content for the show.
Ronia Cabansag is a producer for Stateside. She comes to Michigan Public from Eastern Michigan University, where she earned a BS in Media Studies & Journalism and English Linguistics with a minor in Computer Science.