Memorial garden for UI scholar: A place of hope, peace

Memorial garden for UI scholar: A place of hope, peace

URBANA — A 600-square-foot section of grass near the spot Yingying Zhang was last seen will soon be transformed into a memorial garden dedicated to the missing Chinese scholar.

Work will begin Friday on the memorial designed by the Champaign County Master Gardeners at the suggestion of Ms. Zhang's friends and the Chinese Students and Scholars Association.

The garden is near the corner of North Goodwin Avenue and Clark Street, adjacent to Campbell Hall. It will feature a path leading to a bench, surrounded by greenery and white flowering plants, and is designed to have "beauty and functionality," according to the proposal from Illinois Extension, as shown below:

"The proposed design includes a short gravel path leading to a bench oriented toward the bus stop at which Ms. Zhang was last seen. An engraved stone will be set near the bench with brief text describing the garden. Concrete pavers, fading into the gravel ..., will be installed where the path meets the sidewalk," the proposal said.

The palette will be green and white "to reflect the somber ambiance of a memorial garden," though it will also feature shrubs with vibrant autumn color.

"It's stunningly beautiful," said campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler, who helped coordinate the project.

Guofang Miao, a friend of Ms. Zhang who helped launch the project, said she's happy with the design and expressed gratitude for the master gardeners and Illinois Extension, including Ryan Pankau, Suzanne Bissonnette and Tabitha Elder.

"We just proposed the idea: We want to build a memorial garden. They did all the rest," she said. "This is really nice."

The garden is near the bus stop where Ms. Zhang waited before getting into a car driven by her suspected kidnapper in June 2017. Friends and volunteers have continued to place flowers, stuffed animals and other memorials at the spot.

The plan was initially to put the garden in that exact spot, which is between the sidewalk and the street and owned by the city of Urbana, Kaler said. But the master gardeners felt the area next to Campbell Hall would be more "impactful," she said.

The project will be funded by the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, which houses the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, where Ms. Zhang was a visiting scholar.

Though she was at the university for only a few weeks, Ms. Zhang was already a "treasured member of the ACES family," said Dean Kim Kidwell.

"I witnessed incredible grace, compassion and commitment as Yingying’s friends and family stood side by side, day after day hoping she would return," Kidwell said. "The bonds she created with people here were permanent: she will not be forgotten. The very least the college can do is help create a beautiful space in her memory that reflects her sweet, gentle spirit, and reminds us how important it is to care for one another."

Student volunteers, organized by the CSSA, will maintain the garden after that. The master gardeners will provide annual training and technical assistance as needed.

Planners tried to incorporate designs that would evoke Ms. Zhang's homeland and have meaning to her family but also thrive in central Illinois, to reduce maintenance, Kaler said.

"When her family comes back for the trial, as they said they intend to do, it will be a place of great peace for them," Kaler said.

Among the featured plants are a weeping cherry tree, which will provide "a cascade of spring color"; a juniper plant reminiscent of a bonsai tree; three varieties of hydrangea, including oakleaf hydrangea, which "mimics the decorative and defining element of white walls in formal Chinese gardens"; sweetspire shrubs that will attract pollinators and butterflies; and two small lines of boxwoods to help define the space.

"Her disappearance affected everybody in our community," Kaler said. "If you look at the plans and the designs, it is all designed to calm and make you feel hope and peace. And I think we could all use a little more of that these days."

The preparation work will be done Friday, with planting in a couple of weeks, Kaler said. The goal is to finish the garden sometime in September and hold a dedication in October, she said.

Miao sees the garden as a reminder of Ms. Zhang and the goodness of people who have stepped forward to support her family and friends during this ordeal.

"One bad thing happened, and then you realize there are so many good people surrounding us. But it couldn't really change the tragedy," she said. "The only way we can do anything at this moment for Ying-ying, for her family ... is to keep her story alive. I think that's the most important thing."

Note: This story has been updated with comments from Kim Kidwell, dean of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.