Losing her father was so devastating that she withdrew from the world, but Janice Lucchetti found renewed hope by planting life and watching it grow in the Viking Memorial Gardens in downtown Geneva.
“It’s basically become a place where we can come together in joy and remember those we lost,” Lucchetti said. “... I think it’s just kind of taken on a life of its own. It has been transformed from sadness to beauty to life.”
Her father died of cancer in September 2005. Months later, in May 2006, one of her teenage son’s friends, Dustin Villarreal, died of sudden heart failure. Dustin was a freshman on the Geneva Vikings football team.
Still grieving from her father’s death, Lucchetti related to the pain of Dustin’s parents, Jenna and Dave Villarreal, but saw something different in them.
Lucchetti said the Villarreals were her inspiration because they didn’t withdraw from life after their son’s death. Instead, the couple took action by forming relationships with other grieving parents in Kane County who lost children and helped console them.
From this refusal to withdraw and a desire to create, Viking Memorial Gardens was born five years ago. Family, friends and Viking football players helped break up and till a hard and rough patch of land on the corner of State and Fourth streets and transformed it into a vibrant garden that’s become so splendid, it’s the centerpiece of Geneva’s annual Festival of the Vine in the fall.
What helps to defines the garden now is a plaque dedicated to the Class of 2009 — the year Dustin would have graduated had he lived to finish high school.
“His class, which graduated in 2009, was inspired to get involved in memory of Dustin,” Jenna Villarreal said. “They wanted to do something positive with the grief and his memory. We had a lot of support from the Geneva community.”
But the team’s tragedy didn’t end with Dustin’s death. The Class of 2009 team also lost its running back coach to cancer in 2009 and, in February that year, senior offensive lineman John McNeil died mysteriously at 18 years old.
His mother, Kathy McNeil, said John just got sick one day — the family still doesn’t have an exact explanation of what caused her son to die within 24 hours of being rushed to Delnor Community Hospital.
“We never actually found out anything,” Kathy McNeil said. “The hospital said it was some type of infection.”
McNeil, who’s become part of the core group that tends to the garden, has also found therapy there. But she realizes it’s more than just the soil and the flowers that helps her cope.
“It just helps us realize we’re not alone,” McNeil said. “Just to see the beauty of it year after year is a testament to the memory.”
Lucchetti’s son, Jason Lucchetti, was friends with both Dustin and John. He said both teens played hard and were always considerate and helped others.
“It was just so hard for everybody (after the deaths),” Jason said. “They were good guys, overall.”
Jason is studying civil engineering at Purdue University, but visits and helps in the garden during the summer.
“Five years later, (the garden) is just a big surprise,” Jason said. “We put a lot of work into it.”
The plot is part of a network of more than 50 gardens managed by more than 200 volunteers with the Geneva Beautification Committee. Volunteers bring their own tools to tend the gardens, and the committee supplies the flowers. The program draws participants from businesses, local nonprofits and residents. Volunteers range in age from 5 to 85.
And it’s the commitment of volunteers that keeps the garden alive. Although many students from the Class of 2009 are away at college, the Viking Memorial Garden’s first planters just expanded the garden to anyone who’s ever lost a loved one.
Already, Lucchetti said others have planted flowers in memory of loved ones not associated with the Class of 2009. For one, relatives of Geneva resident Molly Ott, who died at age 6 from sudden heart failure while playing tag in 2003, planted in the garden in her memory.
Others simply give what they can. Lucchetti said her family doctor, Leo Gutt of St. Charles, recently donated tongue blades used to examine patients’ mouths for gardeners to stick in the soil to help identify different types of flowers that grow there now.
“This is an ongoing garden,” Lucchetti said. “We need everybody’s help ... It’s about kids and the community.
“When there has been tragedy,” she added, “Geneva has pulled together in times of sorrow.”