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Pandemic Perseverance: Slavic Village residents build a 'Garden of Life'

Odetta Fields, who helped found the "Garden of Life" in Slavic Village, volunteered Saturday, Oct. 23, at the Fleet Trick or Treat event in her neighborhood, which she helps organize. [Rachel Dissell]
Odetta Fields, who helped found the "Garden of Life" in Slavic Village, volunteered Saturday, Oct. 23, at the Fleet Trick or Treat event in her neighborhood, which she helps organize. [Rachel Dissell]

Many have lost family and friends to COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Cleveland’s high-poverty Slavic Village neighborhood was hit hard.

In Ideastream Public Media’s new Pandemic Perseverance series, part of our Coping with COVID-19 reporting initiative, Slavic Village residents share their memories of their struggle to deal with the pandemic, and the hope that carries them through.

One Slavic Village resident, Odetta Fields, talked about how neighbors came together to honor those they lost to COVID-19 and to prevent further sickness and death, at a community gathering spot they formed — the “Garden of Life.”

Community responds to pandemic needs

My name is Odetta Fields. I'm part of the Community Yahoos. We're a group that was organized to do positive things in Slavic Village. The main core of us is Ed McDonald from the St. Hyacinth area, his wife, Mel, and Tamika Compton. We're the core. When the pandemic hit, me and Mel decided we were going to make masks.

So to start with, we, me and Tamika, wrote a small grant to buy some material to make masks. Well, that just wasn't enough. So we decided, "Well, let's try to do something bigger," and we decided we were going to hand out these free masks, but we had to figure out how.

Our first idea was hanging them on the bridge over I-77. Too many obstacles, too many permits, too much insurance. So we decided to take over a vacant lot.

Turning a vacant lot into a gathering space

We worked it out with the councilman to get the lot behind Daisy's ice cream (on Fleet Avenue.) Beautiful lot, beautiful location. What we did was, we took old tires in the neighborhood and made plants, planters to make them look like teapots, teacups. Put plants in there, got some picnic benches donated and we had the kids and the neighbors paint everything. So it's very bright and colorful. We made it a garden. We call it the "Garden of Life" so people could go there and remember the people that they had lost to COVID.

Many lives lost to COVID-19

There was a lot of loss and this was a heavy hit — 44105 and 44127 — was heavy hit during the pandemic. So we needed a place for people to come and just remember their loved ones and heal from it. And this was that space that people can come and sit and say, "look," you know? And we even had crosses that they could put into the plants and they could put the names of their loved ones. And that way, you know, they could have that memory and that reflection and say, "Look, this is a horrible time, but we can sit here and we can reflect."

Providing free resources

We put clothesline up and we were able to hang masks up there for people to come and take for free, and we put PPE kits up there. We also would have days that we would just go up there and we would hand out PPE supplies. I worked very closely with Neighborhood Connections and MedWish every chance I get, I would sign up for free PPE supplies. Anything we could get, we would get up there, we would pass it out.

The "Garden of Life" becomes a community treasure

The neighborhood has come to respect this space so much. We don't see graffiti up there and it's well taken care of. We had a grand opening there, a ribbon cutting. Everybody came up there with the social distancing, the masks, and it just worked out beautiful. And everybody just seems to very much respect our garden. And it's called the "Garden of Life."

Reporting for this project was done by freelance reporter Rachel Dissell in collaboration with Slavic Village residents Sharon Irby, Nicole Abraham and Pamela Shelley. It was edited and produced by Ideastream Public Media Coordinating Producer Rachel Rood.

Rachel is the supervising producer for Ideastream Public Media’s morning public affairs show, the “Sound of Ideas.”