When her son died, a woman turned to gardening. Now she feeds her whole community

Jenna Fournel and Leal Abbatiello, 14, pose for a portrait at their home in Alexandria, Virginia on April 30, 2022. Since the pandemic began in 2020, Fournel and her son have expanded their garden and started harvesting and give away products for free to their community.

Eric Lee for NPR

Almost every Saturday morning, Jenna Fournel pulls up an old wooden table in her front yard and piles about 30 pounds of produce on it.

Everything comes from his garden and is free for everyone. There may be green vegetables, eggplant, mini watermelons, beans or peppers; whatever is in season. Often there are also homemade breads and muffins, herbs and flowers.

“It’s just lovely, like you’re driving by [and] it looks like this beautiful generosity of generosity,” said Lisa Delmonico, a neighbor who lives just down the street.

Fournel launched the “farm stand,” as she calls it, in the summer of 2020, and it eventually became a place where neighbors could safely interact during the pandemic.

Jenna Fournel cuts crops in her garden in Alexandria, Virginia on April 30, 2022.

Jenna Fournel cuts crops in her garden in Alexandria, Virginia on April 30, 2022.

Eric Lee for NPR

The seeds for the effort literally came from a garden she tends with her 14-year-old son, Leal Abbatiello, and her husband. His youngest son, Oliver “Oli” Abbatiello, also helped him.

“It was probably 2018, when the boys were really old enough to start doing their own things in the garden, planting some of their own seeds, and we planted a lot of flowers. It was the first year that we had a bouquet of flowers,” she said.

The family lives just down the road from a pet store which also housed an animal shelter. That summer, Oli, a lover of animals of all kinds, had the idea of ​​using the flowers to raise funds for these animals. They cut the flowers, put them at the curb and sold them.

Leal Abbatiello, 14, washes arugula in a bucket at his home in Alexandria, Virginia on April 30, 2022.

Leal Abbatiello, 14, washes arugula in a bucket at his home in Alexandria, Virginia on April 30, 2022.

Eric Lee for NPR

The flower market was a success and the brothers brought their profits to the shelter.

It wasn’t until a few years later that the family came back to the idea of ​​sharing their generosity. Although this time it is rooted in grief.

In the fall of 2019, the family took Oli to the hospital for what they thought was a stomach problem. It turned out to be adrenal insufficiencya condition that rarely occurs in children.

“[It was] something that no one had diagnosed or expected was happening with him, and so it was a complete shock to all of us that it happened, and it’s kind of something that was really diagnosed after his death,” said said Fournel. “So he was here one day and then he wasn’t the next.”

Jenna Fournel and Leal Abbatiello, 14, carry a daybed frame to display their products at their home in Alexandria, Virginia on April 30, 2022.

Jenna Fournel and Leal Abbatiello, 14, wear a daybed frame to display their products at their home in Alexandria, Virginia on April 30, 2022.

Eric Lee for NPR

Olli was 8 years old.

“What made it possible, I think, for all of us – my husband, my eldest son and me – to survive those really difficult beginnings was the fact that our community was so there for us,” he said. she declared. “People brought us food for months, people came all the time; and I was so struck by how a community, both people I knew but also strangers, just lifted.”

While mourning their loss, the family realized they needed something to keep their hands and minds occupied.

It was around this time that Fournel remembered one of Oli’s school assignments that was returned to him after his death. He was asked to write what he would do if he received $100.

Leal Abbatiello, 14, inspects the display of produce before community members come to their home in Alexandria, Va., April 30, 2022.

Leal Abbatiello, 14, inspects the display of produce before community members come to their home in Alexandria, Va., April 30, 2022.

Eric Lee for NPR

“He explained how he would use this money to buy beds, leashes and food for dogs that needed homes,” Fournel said. “And we thought, what’s a way to keep that spirit of loving kindness alive in our own lives and for others?”

This question inspired the family to expand the garden, which Oli loved, and to share its possessions with others. They broke new ground, and as they considered where to send the extra food that would eventually grow, the pandemic forced the world into lockdown.

Suddenly, Fournel and her son Leal had plenty of time to garden, but the support system that had been there during their time of grief was gone.

One day, while working on the garden, they decided to give it a name.

“Leal came up with the idea of ​​calling it L&O Farms,” ​​she said. “So the L for Leal and the O for Oli.”

Melissa Bender, 40, and Zach Bender, 7, enjoy freshly picked asparagus as Chris Bender, 46, brainstorms garden ideas with Jenna Fournel at her home in Alexandria, Virginia on April 30, 2022.

Melissa Bender, 40, and Zach Bender, 7, enjoy freshly picked asparagus as Chris Bender, 46, brainstorms garden ideas with Jenna Fournel at her home in Alexandria, Virginia on April 30, 2022.

Eric Lee for NPR

Once the name was decided on, they painted a sign, designed stickers for product containers, and brought out the boys’ old picnic table with the products.

“It was slow at first,” Leal said. “Nobody really came. Nobody knew about it. But little by little, people made it a habit every week, every [Saturday] morning, they come by and they receive products. »

Neighbors who had lived near each other for more than a decade met for the first time at the farm stand.

“Suddenly the isolation of COVID felt less isolated because we had created this space to get to know people and build our own new stories for ourselves in our lives, at a time when we really needed it. , and I think everyone did,” Fournel said. .

Jenna Fournel and Leal Abbatiello, 14, inspect their produce display at their home in Alexandria, Virginia on April 30, 2022.

Jenna Fournel and Leal Abbatiello, 14, inspect their produce display at their home in Alexandria, Virginia on April 30, 2022.

Eric Lee for NPR

Some of the neighbors continued to plant their own gardens with seedlings from L&O Farms.

Fournel said one beautiful and difficult thing she learned from this experience was that people are always striving to overcome something in their lives.

“When you find out about other people’s stories, not only do you feel less alone, but you also feel more challenged to make sure they don’t feel alone as well,” she said.

And Fournel knows she is not alone. As the family works in the garden, they are reminded that Oli’s spirit is with them whenever they hear the flicker of a wind chime hanging in his memory.

This story is part of our Community Changemakers series. If you would like to nominate someone who selflessly brings joy and change to your community, thank you for sharing their story here.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.


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