GURNEE – When staff, students and visitors approach the entrance to Spaulding Elementary School in Gurnee, they are greeted by a beautiful garden filled with plants and flowers.
Pink flowers, soft grasses, small bushes filled with purple color and natural mulch cover a once barren piece of ground. Staff stop to look at a monarch butterfly that has stopped for a rest, visitors smile as they admire the well-groomed grounds while walking a student inside, and the sun drenches the area with warmth and peace.
In front of the new plantings, a white oval sign adorned with the same flowers as those in the garden indicates it is “Rae’s Garden.” Purple angel’s wings sit on either side. A little lower the sign reads: “Dedicated 2023.”
The sign, the garden and future projects are the efforts of Penny and Tony Shepherd. The work is both a labor of love and a way to ease a fraction of the heartbreak from losing the most important person in their lives, their granddaughter Rae Shepherd.
Fourteen months ago, on July 24, 2022, Spaulding school and the District 56 family lost one of its brightest young stars in Rae Shepherd. Rae was only 7 years old and in first grade at Spaulding.
Rae was a spirited, loving and happy girl. She loved music, dancing and everything in nature and toasted bagels with Nutella dripping off the sides. She was a swimmer, ballet dancer, gymnast and beginning violinist. Rae had two furry companions in Bruno, her dog, and Oreo, her cat.
Rae was taken by a cancer called medulloblastoma and a rare arteriovenous malformation. She fought valiantly through her final days. Penny and Tony, who raised Rae, were with her every moment as a team of doctors and nurses did their best to save her.
To honor Rae and provide a lasting legacy of her life, her grandparents cleared an area near the entrance to Spaulding school and created “Rae’s Garden.”
Rae’s Garden is filled with some of Rae’s favorite flowers such as Autumn Joy sedum, Hameln and Burgundy Bunny fountain grasses, Butterfly Weed, Prairie Smoke, a variety of boxwoods and a huge Hibiscus called “Spinderella.” Also included are lavender, one of Rae’s favorite scents. Penny and Tony are proud to say that Rae could name every one of the plants. In the fall, Penny and Tony plan to plant tulip and allium bulbs, more of Rae’s favorites.
In the middle of the garden sits a little statue of a dog in a yoga pose. Rae and Penny often would do “Cosmic Kids” video yoga together. Rae would enjoy putting her hands together, closing her eyes and saying, “Namaste.” The statue is a tribute to Rae’s love of animals and yoga.
The Rae’s Garden sign was designed by Tom Kim, a family friend, graphic artist and brain cancer survivor. He made sure to include Rae’s favorite flowers. The sign was made by the Laska family from North Shore Sign. The height of the sign was set to Rae’s height in first grade.
Just beyond Rae’s Garden is a small staff picnic area that has seen better days. The Shepherds connected with an Eagle Scout candidate who is restoring that area and building two new picnic tables.
On the other side of the school, the Shepherds have begun a restoration of an overgrown and neglected area that was being overtaken by weeds. Penny and Tony have cleared the area. The fenced-off land is going through a process called solarizarion, which is a nonchemical way to neutralize growth and soil disease. In time, the Shepherds will rejuvenate this area.
Not only did Rae love flowers, plants and nature, she also was an avid book lover whose bedroom was filled with hundreds of books. After Rae died, a neighbor set up a GoFundMe page in her name. A small portion of those proceeds helped offset medical expenses. The rest of the money was used to buy a book for every student at Spaulding school during the last school year. The Shepherds plan to continue to buy a book for every student every year for as long as they can.
The Shepherds would like to thank Spaulding Elementary School principal Ellen Maurer and Sean Smith, the District 56 maintenance and facilities director, for their help with the outside projects and Lizzy Isbell, the Spaulding librarian, for her help coordinating the book donation effort.