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NOREEN: Destroyed neighborhood rallies around garden of hope

By: BARRY NOREEN
August 30, 2012
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photo - Surrounded by charred houses and hillsides, Yong Neff, 65, with help from Laurie Huckbody, 49, has kept her garden alive and flourishing as a sign of hope in a community that lost almost everything in the Waldo Canyon fire.  Photo by MICHAEL CIAGLO/The Gazette
Surrounded by charred houses and hillsides, Yong Neff, 65, with help from Laurie Huckbody, 49, has kept her garden alive and flourishing as a sign of hope in a community that lost almost everything in the Waldo Canyon fire. Photo by MICHAEL CIAGLO/The Gazette 

Amid the ashes of the Waldo Canyon fire, a friendship blossoms, a community’s heart is revealed and the “hope garden” thrives.

Yong Neff fled just ahead of the flames from her Mountain Shadows home on June 26. The next time she saw her house there was nothing left — except much of her extensive garden, which had miraculously survived. Many in the neighborhood, including those who have driven by the garden along Flying W Ranch Road, refer to Yong as the “flower lady.”

One of the admirers of the garden was Laurie Huckbody, who had never met Neff but loved looking at the flowers as she bicycled up the hill.

After the fire Huckbody thought it would be a shame for the garden to die, so she began hand watering it with milk jugs — every day. Her story was told in this column on July 17, but quite a lot has happened since then.

Neff and Huckbody have met and now see each other regularly at the garden.

“She’s my family,” Neff tearfully said Thursday. “She’s my daughter. She’s my sister.”

As they embraced, Huckbody smiled and said, “We’ve gotten to know each other very well.”

With assists from many in the community, what Neff calls “the hope garden” has come back strong. What began as Huckbody’s simple gesture has morphed into a community conspiracy of the best kind.

Across the street and up the hill lives an engineer, Tim Wittwer, who flies Old Glory from a tall flagpole atop a rocky outcrop. When he heard about the garden and its challenges, he searched on Craigslist and found two 250-gallon water tanks for sale in Black Forest.

After hearing about the plan for the tanks, the owner sold them for a third of the advertised cost.

C.J. Moore, a neighbor whose home was destroyed, contacted Colorado Springs Utilities about a plan to provide water for the tanks. G.E. Johnson Construction Co. agreed to pay for the water, which comes from a nearby fire hydrant; a few landscaping companies have donated plants.

“People asked me, ‘What do you need? How can I help?’ I’m digging, I’m digging, it’s good therapy,” Neff said. “I feel better. The plants are my kids. I talk to them here in the garden. People think I’m crazy.”

Oh, no they don’t, Yong.

It does the heart good to see the flowers, some vegetables, several varieties of mint — all of it next to rubble the fire left behind. About 15 feet from the garden is a steel I-beam, horribly twisted by the searing heat that rushed down the hillside that day.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” Huckbody said, referring to all of the people who reached out to the hope garden.

“The special chain,” Huckbody said. “It’s touching.”

Yong said strangers have walked by while she toils.

“They cry. They hug me,” Neff said. “I tell them ‘no, my hands are all dirty’ and they say ‘I don’t care.’ Something magic happens.”

Sometimes cyclists stop to pour out the last of their water bottles as a gesture to the garden. During the interview, three cars honked as they drove past.

In the 26 years the Neffs have lived in Mountain Shadows, Yong has cut flowers to give as gifts, or for people in the hospital.

“This year I can’t cut,” she said. “They’re making me whole. Next year I will cut again.”

To the flower lady, the garden isn’t really hers any more: “It’s Mountain Shadows people’s garden now.”

Yong and her husband, Jerry, have been renting and they want to rebuild. Jerry talks about changing the style of the home and some of the landscaping the second time around.

But the hope garden that survived a horrendous fire, the simple dream a community wouldn’t let die — it will still be there.

Listen to Barry Noreen on KRDO NewsRadio 105.5 FM and 1240 AM at 6:35 a.m. on Fridays and follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Reach him at 719-636-0363 or barry.noreen@gazette.com

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