COLUMBIANA - A group of friends trying to help Tammy Gerner Roder never knew their efforts would turn into an extensive garden project at Firestone Park.
Roder has battled breast cancer three times over the last 18 years and is currently undergoing treatments after her fourth diagnosis. She is a Columbiana High School graduate of the Class of 1977 and lives in Twinsburg, although she was in the city for the annual street fair.
She can't talk about the project without getting emotional.
David Noll of the Columbiana High School Class of 1977 Celebration of Life Garden dressed as a tree to help represent the garden project the group is doing. The class is honoring the friendships they have been able to maintain throughout the years. (Salem News photo by Brittney Sadler)
"I don't know if it's the small town of Columbiana. I'm not sure if that was it, or if we were just a special case," she said of her fellow graduates' dedication and unification on the project.
It started out as a simple request by Roder to have a tree planted in the park with the money her friends and alumni raised for her medical expenses.
"I said I don't need the money. I want to do something for the class. We had always talked about doing something in town for our class ... It was always our conversation," she said.
Classmate Kimberly Dodson Mayer said she and other classmates began raising funds for Roder after learning she was diagnosed again in January.
"We wanted to do something to help her out. She is battling what is probably the toughest battle of her life," she said.
Classmate Colleen Anderson, now of Follansbee, W.Va., began coordinating a necklace fundraiser to classmates, family and friends of Roder.
The necklaces were sold to 50 people, who wear them as a symbol of their unified support for Roder, Mayer said.
"We were giving the money to Tammy to use because she was traveling back and forth from the Cleveland Clinic for treatments. She said she didn't want money for that, she wanted to plant a tree in Firestone Park," she said.
Following approval from the city's Park Board the King Crimson Maple tree was planted in early June on the east side of the pond by the walking trail.
It is now known as "Tammy's Tree," and even has its own mascot, which was debuted at the street fair recently by classmate David Noll, who was willing to don the costume for the parade.
A group of classmates even held a tree dedication at the park, and Mayer and Roder said classmate Dane Lavin had the idea to develop a garden to honor not only Roder but the entire Class of 1977.
"We were always in the park, that was our center, and that was my idea to do something for our class. I thought the tree would be dedicated to our class and of course then they went and dedicated it to me," Roder joked.
The idea was accepted by the group and Lavin began drawing sketches of the garden, which will include a paved brick walkway, a gazebo, a butterfly garden and a children's garden.
Because of the extent of the project Mayer said a non-profit has been formed to accept donations. It is named after the garden, the Class of 1977 Celebration of Life Garden, and can be found under that name on Facebook.
The garden will honor all '77 classmates, alive and deceased, and is also for the entire community, Mayer said.
The project was approved by the park board and fundraising efforts began during the street fair. The group is selling brick pavers for the walkway and paintings of Tammy's Tree by artist Scott Lindner, a classmate currently living in Los Angeles. Also being sold are glass baubles designed by Jennifer Paxton.
Mayer said the garden committee is currently in the process of writing some grants for the brickwork and gazebo, which she estimated will cost several thousand dollars.
The committee consists of Noll, Lavin, Anderson, Mayer, Roder and Joann Crowl Smith.
"When we were in school I was a nobody. I wasn't a cheerleader, I was just a person who went to school and was friendly every day," Roder said. "These people who were putting forth the effort for the garden, we were not best friends in high school, we just happened to go to school together and from their hearts decided to do this. That's why I cry all the time, because I just cannot believe that they have so much support for somebody."
Roder and her husband Dave have a six-year-old daughter, Abby.
Donations can be made out to the Class of 1977 Celebration of Life Garden and mailed to P.O. Box 477, Columbiana, Ohio 44408.