March 4, 2010

Parkside plants life to ease the sorrow of losing neighbors


— By . KIM

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Jill Brady/Staff Photographer: Wendy Chapkis, left, of Sherman Street plants bulbs on Grant Street with residents Naomi Mawete, right, and Mariana Angelo Sunday, November 1, 2009, in memory of locals who died in 2009.

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Jill Brady/Staff Photographer: Winnie Ogweta plants a bulb on Grant Street Sunday, November 1, 2009. *for Ann Kim story*

Staff Writer

PORTLAND — When James Angelo passed by Wendy Chapkis' front garden, he would tell her how good her roses looked. When an arsonist targeted his car, and her building caught fire as a result of the intense blaze, the next-door neighbors commiserated with each other.

The two Sherman Street residents didn't know each other well, but Chapkis said his murder made her feel ''absolutely helpless.'' Angelo, 27, was fatally shot Sept. 8, 2008, while on duty as a security guard at Mercy Hospital. It was the first of several traumatic deaths to affect the neighborhood in less than a year's time.

''It was just one awful thing after thing after the next,'' Chapkis said.

On Sunday, Chapkis carried out her plan to distribute dozens of bulbs for neighbors to plant in Parkside in memory of Angelo, Angelo Okot, David Okot and Zoe Sarnacki.

Angelo's killing remains unsolved. His father, 56-year-old Angelo Okot -- a leader in Maine's Sudanese community -- died in June a motorcycle accident in their homeland. Twenty-six-year-old David Okot -- another Sudanese immigrant who was not related -- was killed in April during a police confrontation on Weymouth Street. Sarnacki, 18, was killed in a Cumberland Street apartment on Memorial Day.

Chapkis chose Sunday not just because it's a good time for planting -- warm enough that the ground isn't frozen but cold enough so the bulbs won't sprout -- but because it is a time to remember the deceased. Sunday was Day of the Dead, a Latin American holiday that takes place at the same time as All Saints Day, the Catholic holiday the preceeds All Souls Day.

''I wanted to acknowledge the pain we were all feeling but respond to it in a way that wasn't about fear but about beauty and community,'' said Chapkis.

She had posted fliers on all the buildings on Sherman and Grant streets and advertised the event on her Facebook account.

On Sunday afternoon, 43 people picked up more than 300 bulbs, Chapkis said.

At the People's Regional Opportunity Program's Parkside Neighborhood Center, she distributed baggies of bonemeal and compost as others chose among tulip, daffodil, hyacinth, narcissus and other flowers. Maine Hardware donated the planting supplies and friends and friends of friends of Chapkis provided the bulbs after learning of the idea.

Rodents Biacho was among those who showed up for the event. Biacho, another Sudanese community elder, knew Angelo and Angelo Okot well because of their roles in the community. He said their culture doesn't have a tradition of planting flowers, but he thought that the two as Christians would appreciate the gesture.

''They would like the idea of bringing life back again,'' said Biacho, a West End resident who attends Sacred Heart/St. Dominic's on Mellen Street.

The gardeners soon scattered around the neighborhood to plant their bulbs.

A small group worked around the trees planted on Grant Street, outside the neighborhood center. They included Winnie Ogweta and Mariana Angelo, Angelo's sisters, and their todder niece, Amarih Ogweta. The baby happily played with autumn leaves on the sidewalk and a hand trowel while the older girls and others worked the hard, rocky soil.

Chapkis offered some advice on the use of the bulb planter.

''Turn, crank it down. Now pull it out,'' she said.

''It's fun,'' 7-year-old Chris Amisi proclaimed.

Bob Giovannini, president of the Parkside Neighborhood Association, planned to plant on Deering Street in front of his home and on the esplanade.

''Every year, it gets nicer and better,'' he said of the neighborhood. ''Every step makes a difference.''

Jim Neal of Sherman Street was part of a handful of participants that planted hyacinths and iris on Cumberland Avenue, near the building where Sarnacki died. The suspect in her death, 28-year-old Chad Gurney, has been charged with murder and arson. He was not criminally responsible by reason of insanity.

Neal, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1994, said he tried to not lose sight of all the calm in the neighborhood that preceded the deaths.

''Leading up to that we had a long history of a healthy, thriving neighborhood -- and it still is,'' he said.

A longtime gardener, Neal thought the project was a wonderful way to instill pride in the neighborhood and share the joys of getting hands in the dirt.

''There's that miracle that happens in the spring,'' he said. ''That's exciting.''

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:

akim@pressherald.comJim Neal, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1994, said he tried to not lose sight of all the calm in the neighborhood that preceded the deaths.

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