Watching Merriman Park Elementary students plant flowers in the school’s new outdoor learning center was an almost surreal experience for PTA president Becky Paterik.

“We really were unsure if the sixth graders would ever see it,” says Paterik, whose youngest child will move to Forest Meadows Junior High next year.

Creating the center took nearly a decade, and the seed from which it sprouted was a school tragedy – the death of fourth grader Ritchie Pearce, who was killed in a four-wheeler accident in 1996. He loved the outdoors, so the $500 donated to the school in his honor was originally intended to be a memorial tree or a small planting bed. But the administration and parents thought it could be the start of something much bigger.

“We never envisioned this,” says Betsy Halford, who was Merriman’s PTA president at the time of Ritchie’s death. “This is kind of like a birth, except instead of nine months, it was nine years in the making.”

Ritchie’s classmates are now high school graduates, and the fact that the vision for the learning center not only survived but also expanded over the course of three principals, eight PTA presidents and teacher rollovers says a lot about the Merriman Park community. Years of fundraisers and hard work on the part of parents (both the architect and electrician are Merriman Park dads) brought it to fruition.

The final product, totaling $145,000, includes a pavilion, at least a dozen trees, flood lighting, stone walkways and plenty of garden bed space for teachers to utilize. Merriman Park students planted the first batch of flowers in late April.

“We are finally celebrating with every child having a chance to put their fingers in the dirt,” says former PTA president Fran Phillips, whom Paterik describes as “spearheading and goading” the project to completion.

The teachers will use it as an outdoor classroom – the sixth-graders will study chemical reactions and build compost piles, and the first-graders, who planted seeds in cups this year, will use the garden beds next year. It will also be a setting for plays and reading. Kathy Holloway, a Merriman Park second grade teacher who died of cancer last year, loved Beatrix Potter and dreamed of taking her students to the garden to bring the stories of Peter Rabbit to life.

“She wanted an outdoor center for [Ritchie], and she put a lot of work into it,” says sixth-grader Kate Dodgen. “It’s a really good way to remember her and him.”

The PTA also plans to use it for school events and neighborhood parties. The school welcomes grills and sound equipment (electric outlets are in the pavilion and scattered throughout the garden).

Merriman Park spent the end of the school year celebrating and enjoying the garden, and included among the celebrants were Ritchie Pearce’s parents. It was bittersweet for his mother, Mary, who smiled through misty eyes during the dedication and broke into sobs while hugging Linda Foos, who was principal at the time of Ritchie’s death. Reliving the tragedy was difficult for Pearce, but she was happy to see good come from bad.

“I know my son is looking down on this and smiling,” Pearce says, “because he’s touching a lot more lives still.”