TOWN OF CALEDONIA — Sometimes they come to pick flowers. Sometimes they want to sit quietly and enjoy the multiple colors and aromas of the half-acre garden.
One woman who recently visited Garden of Angels Portage said she just wanted to watch her children play in the garden. And another visitor, a small child, planted a kiss on one of the garden’s angel figurines.
Now in its second season, Garden of Angels Portage — located at W11360 Highway 33 just west of Portage — is Joanne Alt’s way of seeking and sharing the spiritual healing that comes from spending time amid natural beauty.
“God has given me a gift to share with other people,” Alt said.
For Alt, the planting, weeding and tending of the garden are a source of solace for unimaginable loss.
On Oct. 28, 2014, her husband, Scott Alt, died by suicide.
The loss came about 20 years after the death of her 14-month-old daughter, Nikki, who was born with Down’s Syndrome and a heart defect.
At the time of Nikki’s passing, she said, she didn’t give herself the time and space to grieve.
The idea of planting a flower garden occurred to her at that time, but after Scott’s passing, she knew that she needed to do this.
The 18 species of plants in the garden include “a lot of zinnias,” as well as snapdragons, sunflowers and a host of other blooming annuals.
The garden is open to the public, usually from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, from about mid-July, when the flowers are in full bloom, until the autumn frost kills them.
To get to the garden, look for the sign “Garden of Angels Portage” and follow the driveway slightly downhill.
Although Highway 33 traffic runs just above the garden, Alt said many of the visitors never even notice the noise.
Visitors can cut a bouquet to take home, or to give to others. They may donate whatever they wish.
Laura Fredrick of Portage is a frequent visitor to the garden — a place where she finds peace and gentleness, as she grieves the loss of her brother, Patrick Shier, 37, who died June 5 in a single-vehicle crash on Columbia County Highway F.
The crash also claimed the life of Angela Larson, 34. Both were from Portage.
“I come out here to heal — to really heal, to heal the soul,” Fredrick said.
Both Alt and Fredrick observed that grief continues long after all the mourners have gone home from the funeral, and it’s often hard for people to find places where they can deal with their losses.
“Our society,” said Fredrick, “is so lacking in love.”
Fredrick said she has found, in Alt, a friend with whom she can talk through her feelings. And in the garden, she has sometimes had mystical senses of the presence of her brother and other loved ones she has lost.
For example, Fredrick — who loves to take and edit digital photos — once took a photo of three sunflowers, because they reminded her of her brother’s three daughters, Libby, Alyssa and Asia.
When she and Alt viewed the photo, however, Alt noticed something that Fredrick didn’t see when she took the photo. There was a large bird, possibly a hawk or eagle, soaring overhead, and orbs of light emanated from the flowers.
The garden is not the only way in which Alt is seeking to turn her grief into something positive.
She recently taught, at the garden, a session in a suicide prevention technique supported by Prevent Suicide Columbia County (online at preventsuicidecolumbiacounty.org). Training in QPR, which stands for question, persuade and refer, is aimed at everyone, and 1.5-hour sessions are frequently offered in Columbia County. More than 700 people in Columbia County have received QPR training since 2012.
Alt also participates in groups like Grief Share, which meets at the Portage United Methodist Church, and suicide loss support groups.
Alt estimated that in the last year, about 200 people have come to Garden of Angels Portage, after hearing about it from the Garden of Angels Portage Facebook page or by word of mouth.
“I have a lot of struggling souls sent here,” she said. “And a lot of people say they feel their loved ones’ presence in the garden.”
Lyn Jerde on Twitter @LynJerde
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