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Memorial gardens raise money for the troops

Posted: June 9, 2008 2:10 a.m.
Updated: August 10, 2008 5:03 a.m.

Colleen Shaffer, founder of the Circle of Hope Inc., stands under an iron rose arbor in her front yard. Her garden is part of the Memorial Garden Tour, where visitors help raise funds for the Tragedy Assistant Program for Survivors and the Wounded Warrior Project.

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Two boys from Santa Clarita died in Iraq.

On Sunday, their service and the service paid by scores of other local military heroes to our country was honored, not with a gun salute or a parade down Main Street, but with a simple invitation to stroll through gardens of flowers and a simple message - remember those who serve.

Lance Corporal Richard 'Ricky' Slocum of the United States Marine Corp and United States Army Private First Class Cole William Larsen, both 19, were two local heroes remembered by many attending the 3rd annual Memorial Garden Tour which, ever year, invites people to visit the gardens of 10 volunteers in order to raise money for both service men and service women.

"When I lost my son, I was told about this group called TAPS," said event founder Christi Larsen about her son who died in Iraq Nov. 13,

"I got on their Web site and was able to talk to people - to vent, laugh, cry, whatever."

Then Larsen remember how inspired she became after having attended a memorial garden tour held to raise money for a woman's center.

"I liked that it was so casual, and I always loved to garden," she said.

When her son died, Christi Larsen found gardening very therapeutic and that's when it hit her - the idea of raising money for soldiers by inviting people to attend a memorial garden. That's when she started the Memorial Garden Tour in Santa Clarita.

One garden led to several other gardens and several other caring people who wanted to give something back.

"Even if you don't like to garden, I never met a person who didn't like to visit them," Larsen said.

Ricky Cole died Oct. 24, 2004, a month before Cole Larsen.

"It's an honor to Cole and Ricky, to show support for them because the money goes to some good causes," said Ricky's father, Bob Slocum, inside the leafy backyard garden maintained by Colleen Shaffer.

Money raised at Sunday's Memorial Garden Tour goes to both TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors , Inc) and to WWP (the Wounded Warrior Project) a group which collects money to aid injured returning troops.

"There's a lot of guys coming back that need assistance," Slocum said.

"That's why every year I support it, and I hope it keeps going."

Colleen Shaffer is a six-year breast cancer survivor who draws attention to breast cancer awareness through a character she created called the Angel of Hope.

Friends and supporters of her cause - the Circle of Hope - know her as the Pink Angel because of the bright pink wig she wears in promoting her personal charity.

On Sunday, however, she became one of 10 gardeners from Newhall to Canyon Country who opened the doors to their homes and unlocked the garden gates to their gardens, raising money for the families of troops killed (TAPS) and for troops living (WWP).

Other gardeners taking part in the tour, included: Roger and Angela Gitlin of Newhall; Sally Coss, Alan and Donna Wright, as well as David and Laima Abojniewicz, all of Valencia; Albert and Linda Beckles of Saugus and George and Karen Gubert also of Saugus; and from Canyon Country, Jeff and Denise Jens, Bob and Diane Benjamin, and Jane Gates.

When Shaffer first started battling her cancer, gardening became not only therapeutic but also a spiritual symbol of hope.

"If something died in your garden you have another area to plant something else," she said. "Within a crisis, is a solution."

Shaffer's garden is "more relaxed" she said.

"It used to be a sun garden, now it's a shade garden, more relaxed."

Behind her roses and hanging fans of fern are stone angels.

"On one plant, even though I may lose all the leaves, I haven't lost the heart," she said.

While scores of Santa Clarita garden-lovers or supporters of the causes drifted in and out of her backyard, singers sang and musicians played; lemonade was served and cookies laid out.

One of those singers was Trish Lester.

"The first year of the tour, I had read about how Chrisi Larsen lost her son and how she planted a memorial garden in his honor. I had just written a song called "Thank a Soldier." So, I called her up and said 'How would you like to have some music at the tour?'"

Other musicians joined Trish on stage in Shaffer's garden, including:

Melissa Kaye, Tom Renaud, Evonne Rivera and John Zipperer.

Even though the Larsen family moved to Reno, Nev., they returned to Santa Clarita just for Sunday's Memorial Garden Tour.

"I want to make sure I participate in any event that honors our fallen," said garden attendee Robin Bateman.

"Both of my kids are in the army (Specialist Anna Schacherer and Staff Sergeant David Schacherer) so I have a lot of motivation," she said.

People can learn more about the two causes championed by event organizers by visiting their respective Web sites at: (WOUNDED) and (TAPS).


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