When her son died, a woman turned to gardening. Now she feeds her entire 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 giving away produce freely for their community.

Eric Lee for NPR

Almost every Saturday morning, Jenna Fournel pulls an old wooden table out into her front yard and stacks it with about 30 pounds of produce.

It all comes from their garden and is free for everyone to take away. There could be vegetables, eggplants, mini watermelons, beans or peppers; what is in season. Often there are also homemade breads and muffins, herbs and flowers.

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

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

Jenna Fournel harvests April 30, 2022 in her home garden in Alexandria, Virginia.

Jenna Fournel harvests April 30, 2022 in her home garden in Alexandria, Virginia.

Eric Lee for NPR

The seeds for the effort had literally come from a garden she tends with her 14-year-old son Leal Abbatiello and her husband. Her youngest son Oliver “Oli” Abbatiello also helped out.

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

The family lives right next to a pet shop that used to be an animal shelter. That summer, Oli, who loved animals of all kinds, came up with the idea of ​​using the flowers to raise money for these animals. They cut the flowers, put them on 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 took their profits to the animal shelter.

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

In the fall of 2019, the family took Oli to the hospital for stomach poisoning. It turned out to be adrenal insufficiency, a condition rare in children.

“[It was] Something that no one had diagnosed or expected happened to him and so it was a complete shock to all of us that it happened and it was something that was really diagnosed after he died,” Fournel said. “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, carry a daybed frame to display their products at their home in Alexandria, Virginia on April 30, 2022.

Eric Lee for NPR

Oliver was 8 years old.

“I think what made it possible for all of us — my husband and eldest son and I — to survive those really tough early days was the fact that our community was so there for us,” she said. “People were bringing us food for months, people were checking in all the time; and I was so struck by the way a community, both people I knew and strangers, just lifted us up.”

As they mourned their loss, the family realized they needed something to occupy their hands and minds.

Around this time, Fournel recalled one of Oli’s homework assignments, which was returned to her after his death. He had been asked to write about what he would do if he got $100.

Leal Abbatiello, 14, inspects the display of produce before parishioners arrive at her home in Alexandria, Virginia, April 30, 2022.

Leal Abbatiello, 14, inspects the display of produce before parishioners arrive at her home in Alexandria, Virginia, April 30, 2022.

Eric Lee for NPR

“He talked about how he would use that money to buy dog ​​beds, leashes and food for dogs that need a home,” Fournel said. “And we thought, how can we keep that spirit of loving-kindness alive in our own lives and for others?”

This question inspired the family to expand the garden that Oli had loved and to share its estates with others. They laid the groundwork, and as they pondered 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 was in place during their time of mourning 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, sample freshly picked asparagus while Chris Bender, 46, ponders garden ideas with Jenna Fournel at their home in Alexandria, Virginia on April 30, 2022.

Melissa Bender, 40, and Zach Bender, 7, sample freshly picked asparagus while Chris Bender, 46, ponders garden ideas with Jenna Fournel at their home in Alexandria, Virginia on April 30, 2022.

Eric Lee for NPR

Once the name was decided, they drew a sign, designed stickers for the fruit bins, and set up the boys’ old picnic table with the fruit and veg.

“It was slow at first,” Leal said. “No one really came. Nobody knew about it. But slowly people made it a habit every week [Saturday] They’ll come by tomorrow and get some products.”

Neighbors who had lived in close proximity to one another for more than a decade met at the Hofstand for the first time.

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

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

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

Eric Lee for NPR

Some of the neighbors have started their own gardens with seedlings from L&O Farms.

Fournel said one beautiful and hard thing she learned through the experience is that people are always working to overcome something in their lives.

“When you hear about other people’s stories, not only do you feel less alone, but you feel more empowered to make sure they don’t feel alone, too,” she said.

And Fournel knows she’s not alone. As the family works in the garden, they are reminded that Oli’s spirit is with them every time they hear the twinkle of a wind chime that has been hung in his memory.

This story is part of our Community Changemakers series. If you would like to nominate someone who will unselfishly bring joy and change to your community, Please share her story here.

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

.

Leave a Comment