Memorial garden keeps memories of teacher alive

by Melissa Gute

MOUNTAIN ISLAND – When the eight pink balloons tied to a bench in a memorial garden at Mountain Island Elementary School unexpectedly detached and began to float upward, attendees at the dedication ceremony felt the spirit of the woman they were honoring.

Family members of Karen Kirch release pink balloons during a ceremony dedicating a memorial garden at Mountain Island Elementary School in honor of Kirch on April 12. Kirch died from bile duct cancer in May 2012. She was a teacher at the school for eight years. (Melissa Gute/MI Monitor photo)

“Karen’s trying to steal the show already,” Kirsten Hall said, and everyone softly laughed, remembering Karen’s sense of humor.

The eight balloons represented the eight years Karen Kirch taught at Mountain Island Elementary. She lost her battle with bile duct cancer in May 2012. She was 42 years old.

The balloons were caught and later released in the ceremony by Kirch’s family members.

Family members, school administrators, past and current teachers and students gathered to dedicate a memorial garden in Kirch’s honor April 12.

The garden hugs a wall of the school and includes a brick walkway that leads to a bench under a tree. Two red rose bushes symbolize beauty, passion, courage and respect. A pink rose bush symbolizes love and excitement. Irises planted represent wisdom, while the yellow lilies line the garden’s boarder. The daffodil bulbs represent rebirth, new beginning and eternal life, and the maple tree signifies rest and being at peace.

“I think Karen had a hand in helping us pick out these items,” Hall said. “We didn’t know what they meant when we planted them. We just thought they’d look really good, but I truly believe that the words and symbolism so aptly describe her – her beauty, her passion, her courage, her respect, her love and her wisdom, and for us to always remember her rebirth, her new beginning, her eternal life.”

Co-worker Alan Mehldau said if Kirch were there, she would have said, “how funny it is that we have a dedication to me with a bench that everyone gets to put their butts on.”

Along with her humor, Kirch was remembered for her inquisitiveness, spunk, wit, compassion and integrity.

“Karen was such an amazing woman, and she fought her cancer hard and with such class,” co-worker Megan Moore said.

Her relationships with her students were positive and respectful, and she had the “magical quality” to bond with her students and their parents, something not all teachers have, Principal Jeff Ruppenthal said.

In addition to the garden that will be a living reminder of Kirch’s legacy at the school, Ruppenthal announced the creation of the Karen Kirch Award, which will be given annually to a fifth grade student who personifies Kirch’s qualities of having a caring heart and showing commitment to relationships. The first award will be given in June.

To conclude the dedication, Kirch’s father, Matt, gave a word of appreciation.

“I just want to thank everyone that’s here and for your love for Karen,” he said choking back tears. “We miss her dearly also. It’s just wonderful what you’ve done and the way you felt about Karen.”

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