A junior at La Jolla High School, Calabrese set out to complete his Eagle Scout project that grew into a memorial garden for the entire neighborhood.
“Most people’s Eagle Scout projects are nothing like this,” Calabrese said. “It was like four Eagle Scout projects… I never intended for it to grow into this. It was more than an Eagle Scout project; it was a community project.”
Calabrese said he enjoys looking through his window across the street to the garden and seeing people stopping to sit and rest.
At the dedication service over Memorial Day weekend, Opal Street resident Nathan Lorey, who does not attend the church regularly, stood to read a poem inspired by his visits to the garden. He described the garden as a place to meet God and a space that welcomes characters.
“People have to take that extra step to come into the doors [of the church] but they can come here and meet God on their own terms,” said the church pastor Brian Daly.
The idea for the prayer garden first began when Pacific Beach Christian Church remodeled and scrapped a small building that left behind a dirt lot. Church member Marjorie Swailes, who has attended the church since the day it opened in 1949, had donated $10,000 to build a church chapel in honor of her late husband Clifford and his parents. When Calabrese approached her about the project, Swailes said she wanted the church to build a prayer garden. Her parents-in-law Edgar and Golda Swailes were avid gardeners, she said.
“I felt an obligation to fulfill their expectations,” Calabrese said. “It was beyond my wildest expectations.”
Professionals stepped in to help Calabrese. John Stojic, owner of Classic Craft Construction, volunteered to teach Calabrese how to use a Bobcat to level the earth. Stojic is also an assistant Scoutmaster at Calabrese’s Troop 506, based at the La Jolla Methodist Church. On project day, fellow Boy Scouts helped Calabrese move several palm trees that weighed nearly 1,000 pounds and build a pergola for shade. Calabrese worked with Green Gardens on Cass Street to select drought-tolerant plants and to install drip irrigation. He planted a border of olive trees, rosemary bushes and decorative Forest Pansies with crimson, heart-shaped leaves. Focus Lighting sold Calabrese low-voltage lights for nearly half the price to illuminate the garden at night. Two trellises mark the entranceway to the garden adorned with stone benches, a bubbling fountain and a watchful cherub. Hummingbirds zip around the garden.
The garden has also become a space for remembrance. A rock river snakes between native gaura plants where the public is invited to inscribe a rock in memory of a loved one (the pen sits in a bucket under the pergola). At the end of the river stands a large acacia tree that Calabrese’s mother, Janice, ordered specially to honor church member George Podhorsky whose late daughter, Hannah, was fatally shot this past February.
Building a garden was far more complex than Calabrese imagined, and he admits he enjoyed driving the Bobcat far more than wading through the planning process.
Calabrese spent approximately $1,000 securing a city permit since the garden was located in a commercial district in the coastal zone. He recalls humorously when six people from different agencies showed up to inspect his work one day when he was laying the concrete. His expenses grew beyond his budget and he had to reach out to more donors. Calabrese managed to secure an ecological grant from a family that had set up an account at the La Jolla Methodist Church for conservation projects in honor of their late son. Including Swailes’ donation, Calabrese had to raise $22,000 for the project.
Calabrese wasn’t charging ahead on this project alone, however; his father is a Scoutmaster who helped steer his son through the process, Janice said.
Completing his Eagle Scout project is just one activity in Calabrese’s busy teenage life, however. He competes on the swim and water polo teams at La Jolla High School. He serves as a deacon and lay leader at his church. He blows glass at Balboa Park in his spare time. While his church dedicated the prayer garden with hymns, thanksgiving and a prayer on the Memorial Day Sunday, Calabrese was elsewhere training to be a lifeguard for next summer when he turns 18.
At the dedication, church members lined up to collect rocks from the river. Small children carefully chose their favorite shaped rocks on which to write the names of their deceased grandparents. Andrea Sanders snapped photos of her rock that she dedicated to her father Bill Newsome, who passed away last year. Newsome and his wife, Marylou, were the first couple to get married in the church, and their daughter, Andrea, was the second baby born into the church family.