Garden replacing home where girl killed helps neighbors heal
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) — The white bungalow house where 10-year-old Hailey Owens was killed is long gone.
In its place is the Delaware Community Garden, a spot where more than tomatoes and onions grow.
“There is a lot of healing in the neighborhood,” said Jean Ackley, a master gardener who has been integral in making the garden a success.
Kevin Evans, who lives about 400 feet from the property, agreed.
“It was a dark cloud on the neighborhood,” Evans said of the house where Hailey’s body was found. “There was a feeling in the neighborhood that we can’t allow this.”
In the years since Hailey’s death, the neighborhood has grown closer, Evans said. Neighbors are more protective, alert and more inclined to get to know one another.
And much of that began as folks came together to work in the garden, the Springfield News-Leader reported.
“This neighborhood has adopted that park,” Evans said.
Inspired by that growing sense of community among his neighbors (as well as President Barack Obama’s farewell speech encouraging people to get involved), Evans founded the Delaware Neighborhood Association in 2016.
Now they have monthly meetings on the first Tuesday of every month at the Westminster Presbyterian Church.
“The neighborhood is much closer and we look out for one another,” he said. “Having started this neighborhood association, we have had some wonderful successes with getting people to just meet each other.”
“Now my wife and I will sit on the front porch and we know our neighbors,” he continued. “We wave and say hi. We care about them.”
Evans recalled how in the months following the homicide, he and his wife would cross the street to avoid walking close to the white house while on their neighborhood strolls.
“It was horrible,” Evans said. “I don’t know who bought the house and had it demolished, but that was the best thing that could have been done there.”
Neighbors will always remember what happened there, Evans said, but they don’t want to focus on the past.
“We focus on what is growing there now and how we can make it better,” he said. “The garden has brought so many people together — the love and spirit that came into making that garden.”
Following the homicide, Rick Richardson with Re/Max House of Brokers had the listing but could not find a buyer.
According to a 2016 News-Leader story, Richardson took a different approach to unload the property. He found donors to buy the house, who then transferred ownership to the nonprofit Springfield Community Gardens.
The house was sold for what the bank was owed. The owners, the parents of Hailey’s killer, did not make money from the sale, Richardson told the News-Leader in 2016.
Richardson, who represented both buyer and seller, did not take a commission and would not tell the reporter who the donors were.
The anonymous donors also paid for the demolition.
Though she lives in a different neighborhood, Ackley said she was drawn to the project because her granddaughter was best friends with Hailey Owens.
Hailey was abducted one street over from Ackley’s granddaughter’s father’s house.
“The kids stay there part time,” Ackley said. “That hits close to home, just the fact it could have been one of them (her grandchildren).”
The Delaware Community Garden gets $500 a year from the Springfield Community Gardens organization. Everything else comes from volunteers and donors, Ackley said.
For example, All About Trees removed a couple of large trees at no cost. Powermax Electric put in waterproof electric outlets in the greenhouse. And that greenhouse was built by Vatterott instructors and students a few years ago.
Last summer, at least 650 pounds of fresh produce was harvested from the garden. Ackley suspects there was actually quite a bit more.
“Some of us are really bad about putting the poundage down,” she said.
This year, they are hoping for about 1,000 pounds of produce. What neighbors don’t want will be donated to Crosslines or Ozarks Food Harvest, she said.
Asked if her granddaughter, Hailey’s friend, has ever been to the garden, Ackley shook her head no.
“I’m sure she will,” Ackley said. “I tell her, ’Don’t look at it as the place she was killed. Look at it as where a little bit of her spirit is, because that is the last place she was.”
Ackley said she often senses Hailey’s spirit in the garden.
“All the time,” she said. “We get stuff to grow that I would never be able to grow at my house. And I’m like, ‘Thanks, Hailey.’”
As soon as it warms up a little, volunteer work will resume at the Delaware Community Garden, Ackley said.
There are leaves to be raked, beds to be cleaned out and/or remodeled, and plants to be planted, she said.
“There is always something that can be done over there,” Ackley said. “We have already started some kale. We’ve started our seeds because we grow everything from seed.”
Volunteers are encouraged to bring their kids. Ackley said she wants to have more kid-focused projects this year, like building birdhouses and painting pavers.
Information from: Springfield News-Leader, http://www.news-leader.com