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Jerry Mudge Turned Personal Tragedy Into Ministry That Helps Thousands

The Charlotte World 4-11-02

Charlotte ~ When the first phase of a new Children's Memorial Walkway in the Third Ward community was dedicated recently, the mayor and a host of area officials were among the crowd of about 450 that showed up to celebrate, and organizer Jerry Mudge was thrilled.

But even more rewarding for Mudge than hearing officials' endorsements of the project is hearing the stories of grieving parents who find hope in the place of remembrance she and others have worked so hard to create.

"We have worked eight years to get it in," Mudge said of the I-shaped walkway made of of 12,000 bricks, 300 of which are engraved with messages honoring deceased children. "It is a beautiful way for people to come together and remember."

The walkway, flanked by weeping cherry trees and benches designed to accommodate more engraved bricks each year, is part of Frazier Park at 1201 W. Fourth St., a peaceful haven within sight of U.S. 77.

"We wanted something in the heart of our city and being close to 77 is good because we have people from far away as Granite Falls and even some who come from West Virginia, to honor loved ones," Mudge said.

When they come to visit or call to ask about a brick, she is eager to hear about the children they want to memorialize, and most eager to talk.

"There's a thousand and one stories in the walkway," Mudge said, recalling a mother whose 12-year-old daughter was killed when she fell out a window or a woman whose son was cremated and his wife got the ashes, so she had no place to honor him. These were among the hundreds who have purchased engraved bricks and use the walkway as a way to remind others of their loved ones.

Though the stories of loss would sound depressing to most, for Mudge they are words of encouragement.

"These are stories of hope. By building the walkway, we've given these people hope. It's a place for them to heal," she said. "When you remember your child and others remember, it helps you heal. You are doing something about your grief."

Mudge has her own story. her sons, ages 29 & 28, were killed in an accident in 1990. It took her a while to admit that her son was driving drunk. Four years later, she was a Mothers Against Drunk Driving volunteer of the year.

"For the first eight months I couldn't focus on anything," Mudge said of her sons' death. But as she and her husband, Skip, worked through their grief, they began to reach out to other parents who had lost children and formed a ministry called Footprints, the organization which is spearheading the walkway project.

The idea began when, on the first anniversary of her son's death, Mudge invited friends and family to her home for a brief service and to help plant a garden in their memory. Mudge then began helping other parents establish gardens for their lost children and the idea mushroomed.

The group originally wanted to establish a public rose garden, but had difficulty finding a good location. Then the idea of bricks came up and organizers began working with Mecklenburg County's Parks and Recreation Department to find a suitable site. When they stumbled on Frazier Park, Mudge knew it was the right place. It had an old brick walkway that had been put in 20 years before, a fact that helped clear the way for the new one.

"People wouldn't have come up with the idea, this was God," Mudge said. "It took eight years for us to listen to him and get in tune with his timing."

The Children's Memorial Walkway Board, which includes members from a number of area grief support groups, has a 30 year contract with Parks and Recreation that outlines each phase. The phases are designed so that the walkway could be considered complete after each one and isn't left under construction.

With the help of some 20 corporate sponsors and host of individual donors, the organization raised $43,000 over two years for the first phase, which includes 12,000 bricks, the two benches and some landscaping including monkey grass and seven weeping cherry trees.

"When we are finished we'll have something like 400 monkey grass plants around the walkway," Mudge said, adding that she is hoping to recruit some area garden clubs to help with the project.

While the walkway, which will eventually have a monument in the center, will keep its general shape, during special services twice a year ~ June and December ~ new bricks with engraving will replace the plain bricks and more bricks will be added along the sides as needed. The walkway is organized with various sections representing KinderMourn, Footprints, Hospice, SIDS Alliance, Victims Assistance and Mothers of Murdered Offspring, so that it is easy for families to locate the brick dedicated to their loved one. The walkway is open to people of all faiths, but the services are Christian and have included church choirs, liturgical dancers and more, Mudge said.

"We know without the Lord we wouldn't be here, so we hope we can shine a light on other people," she said. "We who are Christians, we minister to these people, we can show them Jesus."

In addition to the twice-yearly services when new bricks are added, families are welcome to have their own events of remembrance to coincide with a loved one's birthday or the anniversary of a death.

"Sometimes people don't like to come to cemeteries, but they'll come instead to the walkway," Mudge said. The site, with children's play equipment nearby, is a reminder of life.
"When people lose a child, at first they are in deep grief, in a daze, but after the first year or so, they'll start looking for ways to remember their child and to remind others" Mudge said. "That is one of the things they fear, that other people will forget their children ever existed." There is no age limit to those who can be memorialized on the walkway. "We have "children" of all ages, probably the oldest is someone in their 70's," Mudge said.

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