MILWAUKEE — A drizzly but sunny Friday evening was a fitting backdrop for the dedication of Northwest Catholic School’s Peace Garden, as smiles mingled with tears on the faces of the dozens of attendees – students, staff, parents and members of the media and City of Milwaukee Police Department.
The garden, located next to the school’s main entrance on 41st Street, was created to honor the memory of Laylah Petersen, the Northwest Catholic kindergartener who was shot to death at her home in Nov. 6, 2014.
“This is a very special night for all of us,” said Michelle Paris, NWCS lower school principal, addressing those gathered for the Sept. 16 dedication. “Laylah and her kind and loving spirit will forever be the foundation of this garden…. This garden is already starting many conversations with our students. Those conversations surround peace and hope and what hope and peace feel like and look like.”
During the ceremony, the school choir, led by second grade teacher Patti Keller, performed hymns including “Rain Down” and “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” Laylah’s older sister Destiny, a fourth-grader at NWCS, sang in the choir, and along with her classmates placed pinwheels in the garden after it was blessed.
“The holy water that we use and present for the blessing of this peace garden will not change the garden; it will not make the flowers grow faster,” said Fr. Mike Barrett, pastor at Our Lady of Good Hope Parish, where Laylah was a parishioner. “The holy water will be used to change us. We see in this (garden) God’s world of nature and desire for unity and order, orderliness and peace, peaceable people and a place for everyone by God’s plan and design.
“We ask God as we bless this garden to rain down his mercy on our world, on our community, to rain down his justice in our neighborhood and our schools, rain down his peace to all of those who seek to do his will.”
Police representation included officers who responded to the scene of Laylah’s murder, as well as Police Chief Edward Flynn. Laylah’s death and the search for her killers was a deeply personal case for Flynn, who kept a photograph of her in his breast pocket until the crime was solved.
“One can’t come here and not think about the fact that for too many of our city’s children the sound of gunfire is the background music of their lives,” he said. “We can’t help but think of Laylah Petersen, we can’t not think of (10-year-old 2014 gunshot victim) Sierra Guyton, of Za’layia Jenkins (age 9, killed by a stray bullet in May). Too many of our children suffer violent death.”
Petersen was killed when several shots were fired into the front of the home she shared with her grandparents on North 58th Street. She was sitting on her grandfather’s lap when a bullet struck her in the head; she died later at a hospital.
Three men were arrested last year and charged in connection to the shooting that resulted in Laylah’s death. Investigators allege the gunmen were seeking revenge for an unrelated crime and targeted Laylah’s house by mistake.
Flynn said the peace garden should “be to us a call to action. This should not have to happen again. We should not need more peace gardens.”
Mindfulness helps students with healing
The garden has been described by staff members as a physical sign of the sense of peace that Northwest Catholic seeks to establish within its walls and within the lives of its students.
Just a few months before Laylah’s death, the school began implementing mindfulness exercises into the daily schedule of all classes on both campuses. These guided breathing and relaxation techniques announced over the PA system, NWCS director of advancement Elizabeth Gardner told the Catholic Herald, are tools that can help students refocus if they are in distress.
“In order for our kids to be able to learn, they need more tools, because many of our families have experienced some trauma in their life,” she said. “We began the program just a couple months before the tragedy with Laylah occurred, and we were very thankful that we had this already in place.”
The mindfulness program is a collaboration with Mount Mary University and is funded by the Charles E. Kubly Foundation. Other mindfulness exercises in which the students engage include HeartMath techniques, which utilize technology to measure breathing and heart rate as students view calming images on a computer screen.
“It encourages them to learn that muscle memory of how to get to a place where they can refocus and calm down quicker,” said Gardner.
Paris gifted Chief Flynn with “calming bottles” made by the students as part of their mindfulness training. The bottles are filled with glitter and liquid, and students are encouraged to regulate their breathing as they overturn the bottle and watch the liquid float to the bottom.
“I’m going to put this in my office to calm myself,” joked Flynn.
Garden designed by Petersen family friend
The garden, funded by private donations and proceeds from NWCS spaghetti dinners, was designed by Jay Monfre, a friend of Laylah’s grandmother, Maggie Fogl, and an alumnus of Our Lady of Good Hope School. That school merged with St. Bernadette and St. Catherine of Alexandria schools in 2009 to form NWCS.
The space features a tree, shrubbery and a stone birdbath, with the word “Peace” emblazoned graffiti-style on the school wall beside it.
“It wasn’t long ago that this garden was an empty patch of grass,” Paris said. “But this space now has promise and hope. I can’t wait for next year when this garden is in full bloom and we’ll see lots of colors and lots of butterflies.”
Though it serves as a means to remember Laylah, each time students and staff enter and exit the school, she is never very far from their thoughts anyway.
“I really feel like our school has gotten very close from that (tragedy),” said Gardner.
“One of my favorite memories of Laylah is before she became a student of Northwest Catholic, when she would come to Mass or our prayer services, and she would sing and she would pray with the students as if she was one of our students at that time,” said Paris in her remarks at the ceremony. “So when she became a student, she sang louder and prayed harder.”