COLUMBIA FALLS – With the assistance of a tractor and many helping hands, students and staff planted six trees at Columbia Falls High School on May 14 to remember Taylor Peterson, who died of cancer in December. The trees are part of a memorial garden and mural being built on the side of the school.
Peterson, 17, was an honor roll student and standout volleyball player. She returned to Columbia Falls last autumn for her senior year, after enduring 18 months of radiation and chemotherapy treatment. In late November, doctors diagnosed Peterson’s cancer as terminal and she died three weeks later.
“Today is bittersweet,” said English teacher Alyson Dorr. “We have much to celebrate and much to reflect on.”
Students and staff had filled the gymnasium that morning for a brief memorial service before going outside to start planting trees and painting tiles that will eventually be part of a mural. The garden will include a pergola that was used during the high school prom in March. A building trades class will install it next year.
The memorial garden was the idea of three juniors at the school. Lexi Corbett, Brooke Wilson and Allison Foust spent two weeks last fall filling out a grant application for the Plum Creek Foundation. Even though the deadline had passed, the foundation gave the students an extension and then awarded the project $5,000.
“(Taylor) would appreciate how we’re trying to live on and cope with everything,” Wilson said.
Dorr, who is managing the project, said the garden and memorial would be completed in two phases and finished next year. Kelsey Timothy, who is also battling cancer, designed the garden space.
“(These students) envisioned a space of life, color and peace,” she said. “A place to remember Taylor.”
During the memorial service, friends and students shared memories of their friend.
“Her laugh was contagious and goofy, just like she was,” said senior Austin Martin. “She carried herself so well through the ups and downs and it was so inspiring.”
In the audience were Peterson’s parents, Chuck Peterson and Michelle Koller. Chuck said the memorial garden brought back memories of his daughter. He said Taylor would have had a “smile from ear to ear” if she had been there.
Koller said she hopes to help with the garden in the coming months and was grateful to the community for its support.
“To hear Taylor’s friends talk about her brought a tear to my eye,” Koller said. “It’s amazing how one 17-year-old could just bring a community together like this.”
In November, after doctors said her cancer was untreatable, the community held fundraisers to try and send Peterson to Hawaii before she died. A benefit dinner was held and a group of girls even cut their hair in solidarity. Teachers said Taylor’s death had a lasting effect on her senior class, which graduates on June 1. But Dorr added the garden would help the students heal.
“I’m so excited to see it come together and give the seniors a chance to grieve,” Dorr said, as students picked up gloves and shovels to plant the garden. “It gives them a chance to sweat off and work off some of their pain.”
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