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Somer's Garden: Transforming evil to a safe place of peace, happiness

'I'm just a mom who didn't know what else to do'

By Kyla Woodard
kyla@claytodayonline.com
Posted 6/20/24

ORANGE PARK —   When Diena Thompson was given the keys to 1152 Gano Ave., she decided to burn it down. As she threw the match in, she watched for hours as the house disappeared forever. …

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Somer's Garden: Transforming evil to a safe place of peace, happiness

'I'm just a mom who didn't know what else to do'


Posted

ORANGE PARK — When Diena Thompson was given the keys to 1152 Gano Ave., she decided to burn it down.

As she threw the match in, she watched for hours as the house disappeared forever. Engulfed in flames, it ceased to exist. Ridding Thompson and her neighbors of its presence and the painful memories that came with it.

It was a house that new neighbors passing by would initially never second glance at. But for Thompson, it represented a dark time almost 15 years ago — the day her life changed forever. 

“I didn’t want anyone to live on a property where my life essentially ended,” Thompson said. “The life I knew ended on October 19, 2009.” 

It was then that her daughter, 7-year-old Somer Thompson, was abducted while walking home from Grove Park Elementary School. And it was in that house that Somer was murdered by then-24-year-old Jarred Harrell.

It was a story that sent shockwaves through the county and nation. And now, years after the tragedy, the spot remains flooded with memories of a little girl who never got the chance to be. 

But, amid the heartache, Thompson said the positive light shines through. 

What was once a place where Somer could not get the help she needed is now a place that aims to help those who may be in need. 

Now known as Somer’s Garden, the land acts as a food forest, cultivating fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs in a self-sustaining process. Thompson said it was made to be self-sustaining so it never had to be taken care of, but was always able to give to others.

In the garden, birds chirp as banana trees stand tall, corn stalks look to grow, and pears hang from their leafy homes. Additionally, Thompson said pomegranate trees, peach trees, fig trees, muscadines, and turkey tail mushrooms had found a place in the vast garden.

Thompson said this atmosphere is what she hoped would come out of the land.

“It’s just more about it being a peaceful place for people to come and just enjoy nature in all its splendor,” Thompson said. 

And, she said she can envision Somer being right there in it.

“Somer was so much like me. So much like me. Had this been here instead of the house with the monster in it, I think Somer probably would’ve skinned her knee in here a time or two. I could see her in here running around,” Thompson said.

The property was given to the Somer Thompson Foundation in 2015. Thompson said her initial plan for the house was to pull out as much as possible and donate it to Habitat for Humanity.

However, following advice from the Orange Park Fire Department, she decided to clear it out completely, and the department also used it as a training exercise. 

Following its removal, Thompson said many local businesses in the community helped to clean up the debris that remained. 

Asking others what they thought should come from the space, Thompson said she had much input from her community. Eventually, deciding on a garden. 

For Thompson, the garden has many purposes. 

People who are in need or just want to experience fresh local produce can pick fruits and vegetables in the garden.

"If it can help someone so hungry because they haven’t eaten, a homeless person, so be it,” Thompson said. “We should be taking care of people and helping to combat the issues that we currently deal with.” 

Thompson said creating the garden was also a way for her to give back to the community that has constantly kept her going.

“If it weren’t for my community, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I truly believe that. They’re what has held me up and given me the strength to be as strong as I can be,” Thompson said.

But most of all, Thompson said her intention was to get rid of a bad place she and her children frequently saw every day. She said it afforded her the opportunity not to have to relive what happened there regularly. 

“They continued going to school down the street for years. The twins were only in second grade when all of this happened,” Thompson said. “And we own a house right around the corner.” 

Her sentiment was much reciprocated. Thompson said she was graced with words of gratitude when she got rid of the house. Especially from the neighbor who lived across the street from it. 

On the day she burned the house down, Thompson said the older resident cried to her.

“She came over and cried and told me thank you,” Thompson said. “It bothered her every day to look at this and be reminded that nobody could help save Somer that day.” 

In addition to sustenance, the garden provides an opportunity for reading. A little box full of books is in the garden, available for children and adults to choose from.

 But Thompson said the community cannot only bring books to put in the box but also take the books with them, making it a free book library. 

“I think this would be a great place to come, sit on the bench under the muscadines where there’s a cool breeze, and you're in the shade and read a book,” Thompson said. “And you got them right there, you don’t even have to bring a book.”

Thompson said the book library has also allowed personal notes from the community to be shared with her.

“People have left things in there. Sweet, little mementos for me and my family. Like a hand-drawn picture of the actual garden,” Thompson said. “With the colors and everything.” 

Thompson said the garden has grown tremendously since it opened in 2016, and it has even become the first public food forest in Northeast Florida.

It was adopted by residents and staff at the Life Care Center of Orange Park in May.

Robin Dake, the center's activity director, said that the nursing and rehab facility residents worked together to add donated soil and plants to the garden.

Dake said the facility hosted a Spring Fling for Somer event to learn more about food forests and obtain donations for the cause. The center also raffled off a garden basket to raise money.

For the future, Dake says that the center hopes to put out plant labels so people can read what all the plants in the garden are. 

“I believe that is the whole goal because they were completely excited about what we wanted to bring and add to it. And that’s their goal as well,” Dake said. “They just want to bring goodness and happiness.” 

All of the goodness and happiness in the garden stems from Thompson’s desire to continue Somer’s legacy.

Even with all the light it seeks to shine, sitting in the garden, Thompson said she can’t help but feel sadness about what could’ve been.

“I wonder what she would look like…’ how tall would she be?’, ‘what would she be into?’, ‘would she be going to college?’, ‘would she have a job?’, ‘Would she have a boyfriend?’ would she be married?’” Thompson said. “God only knows.” 

Thompson said the garden also brings her happiness as she continues recognizing her daughter’s story's impact on the community. 

“I know that people still think about Somer. I know that people still recognize myself and my children when we’re out in public,” Thompson said. “I have to smile at that because they remember Somer.” 

Even with the outpouring of kind words from the public, Thompson said she wants others to understand that what she did was simply her motherly instincts. Even though it was painful, her voice had to be heard. 

“To anybody who says wonderful things, again, gosh, thank you,” Thompson said. “But, again, I’m just a mom. I’m just a mom who didn’t know what else to do.”

Thompson said that the years since have made her a better mother, daughter, neighbor, and person. She looks at what happened and hopes for a better future for children like Somer. 

“I hope that someday we can figure out what causes people to do these horrible things and eradicate that,” Thompson said. “But, I know that’s probably not going to ever happen.” 

It took Thompson years to obtain the property where her daughter’s life tragically ended. What she would turn it into, she wasn’t initially certain. But she knew one thing for sure. 

“I think more than anything, Somer would’ve wanted the monster’s house gone.”