Centennial Garden in Willowbranch Park

A rendering of the Centennial Garden in Willow Branch Park
A rendering of the Centennial Garden in Willow Branch Park

Volunteers gathered on July 25 at Willowbranch Park in Riverside to bring to life an unattractive boggy drainage area with the installation of Centennial Garden. 

Before then, stagnant water bred mosquitos. Trenches and tracks made by the tires of off-road bikes scarred the land. But thanks to a Jacksonville visionary, Richard Ceriello, the distressed domain has been transformed into lush landscape. Its location within the park is near the children’s playground and gazebo, making the new garden appealing to families and picnickers.

Centennial Garden will eventually  include flowering grasses, Trailing Lantana, assorted ferns, and Vitex trees—which are often referred to as Southern lilacs for their purple-blue blooms. To complement the mix is a single Weeping Willow tree paid for and adopted by Danielle Cleary. Prior to its planting, Willowbranch Park had not even one willow still standing. 

Scott Dowman, a local landscape architect, drew up the original plans for the project and then amended them based on input from the Florida Native Plant Society. Chosen to be planted were sun and heat-tolerant native flora appropriate to this region that require minimal care.

Wally Ericks discusses the types of plants to be planted in Willowbranch Park.
Wally Ericks discusses the types of plants to be planted in Willowbranch Park.

The garden is a gift to the community and to the entire city from the AIDS Memorial Project of Northeast Florida (AMP), a 501(c)(3) organization formed three years ago with a mission to establish, create, and maintain a living memorial to Northeast Floridians who lost their lives to AIDS-related illnesses. AMP is specifically focused on building an AIDS memorial to replace the temporary bridge that currently spans the Willowbranch Creek that runs through the middle of the park. But in the meantime, the group has been enhancing the space, getting it ready.

The Centennial Garden project, named in celebration of the centennial establishment of the park, is one of several beautification installations AMP has planned. Another is the ongoing Love Grove, a memorial tree-planting program, and a floral wall mural that’s already been sketched.    

Side by side

Ceriello is one of three founding members of Plant Parenthood (PP) along with Theresa Parlato, who’s a semi-retired certified builder, and Gary Lambert, a technology expert. Ceriello, as president of AMP, decided that PP would build the garden and Parlato would spearhead the project. “That’s how I got thrust into greatness,” said Parlato. The two organizations worked alongside each other on the project, and Parlato coordinated the actual planting of the flowers and shrubs.

Plant Parenthood (PP), still in its infancy, began in September 2019 as an apolitical online community for plant enthusiasts, basically a show-your-plant-off private, invitation-only Facebook group. Though membership is now near 400, few have ever met, as COVID-19 interfered with their intentions to occasionally socialize in person, host events, and take on small projects throughout the city. The Centennial Garden was PP’s first major horticultural endeavor.

It takes a village

The original plan for Centennial Garden had been to break ground on July 25 and then plant in phases. “We didn’t think we’d have enough money to do everything at once,” Ceriello said. But thanks to the generosity of the people of Jacksonville, a significant bequest from someone whose navy buddy had died of AIDS locally, and a board member of AMP who doubled the fundraising amount, “We had the money to finish the project in one swoop,” said Ceriello.

James Cook, Randy Lawson and Wally Ericks assist in planting a garden in Willowbranch Park.
James Cook, Randy Lawson and Wally Ericks assist in planting a garden in Willowbranch Park.

Amy Rivard helped with marketing and fundraising ideas. AMP coordinated with the Garden Club last month to hold a car wash in their parking lot. The money raised allowed the purchase of all the necessary plants. “The community’s been very, very generous. We were so impressed by that,” Ceriello, said. Wally Ericks, PP member and board member of AMP, who acted as liaison between the two organizations, searched nurseries for the most appropriate plants at the best prices.

AMP has been working with the Department of Public Works and the Jacksonville Historical Society. The Department of Parks, Recreation, and Community Services of Jacksonville, one of the largest municipal parks departments in the country, has also been cooperative and supportive of Ceriello’s vision for Willowbranch. “They’d be hard-pressed to do all that is needed to make sure that park is cared for better. I think that it’s up to citizens, too, to take the initiative,” Ceriello said. He is occasionally seen walking through the park with a trash bag in his own hand cleaning up litter. 

The Centennial Garden project was done without imposing much on the city government. Though they’ve been guiding and helpful, it’s been a community-based enterprise. “It’s been a task, but it’s a good one because we are honor-bound,” Ceriello said.

Dan Hutton helps with the planting in Willowbranch Park.
Dan Hutton helps with the planting in Willowbranch Park.

History played a part

Ceriello chose Willowbranch Park, located on Sydney and Cherry Streets, for its history. It was the site of Jacksonville’s first Gay Pride Festival in 1978. Approximately 300 had attended in public demonstration, risking severe repercussions from a highly conservative community. Military personnel could have lost their status. Parents could have lost custody of their children. People could have been evicted from their homes. That was the reality four decades ago. To march on that day was an act of true defiance for the sake of personal liberty.

Another reason Ceriello selected Willowbranch is that most of the early cases of AIDS in Jacksonville came from within a two-block radius of the park’s location. It is considered Ground Zero of the HIV infections and deaths of Jacksonville residents. The memorial is intended to represent a bridge between those lost to AIDS and those who remember them. 

One man’s vision is becoming an entire city’s benefit. Thanks to Richard Ceriello, the AIDS Memorial Project of Northeast Florida, and a community of volunteers, Centennial Garden has transformed a piece of Willowbranch Park.

By Mary Wanser
Resident Community News

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