Lifestyle & Human Interest

'A Complete Shock': Mom Turns from Grief to Giving Back after the Unexpected Loss of Her Son


For Jenna Fournel of Alexandria, Virginia, gardening is a way of life, a way to bond as a family and a means of giving back to the community.

“It was probably 2018 when the boys were really old enough to start doing their own things in the garden, planting some of their own seeds, and we planted a lot of flowers,” she told NPR. “That was the first year that we had a bunch of flowers.”

“The boys” are her sons Leal Abbatiello, now 14, and Oliver “Oli” Abbatiello, who was 7 at the time and loved spending time in the garden.

And it was Oli who came up with a generous plan for using the contents of their garden. Oli, an animal lover, proposed that they set up a little “flower market” to raise money for an animal shelter down the road.

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So they picked their flowers, put them on the curb and raised money for the needy pets. It’s a fond memory now, one made only more dear by what happened the following year.

In the fall of 2019, Oli was taken to the hospital with what the family thought was a simple stomach bug, but the reality was much more devastating.

The 8-year-old boy with a giving heart was diagnosed with adrenal insufficiency, with no warning, and passed away a short while later.

“[It was] something that nobody had diagnosed or anticipated was happening with him, and so it was a complete shock to all of us that it happened, and sort of was something that was really diagnosed after he died,” Fournel said.

“So he was here one day and then he wasn’t the next.

“What enabled, I think, all of us -– my husband and my oldest son and I -– to survive those really hard early days was the fact that our community was so here for us,” she continued.

“People brought us food for months, people checked in all the time; and I was so struck by the ways in which a community, both people that I knew but also strangers, just lifted us up.”

It was Oli’s influence, again, that spurred Fournel to eventually reach out to the community. As she was going through old school papers of his, she found an assignment from a prompt asking what he’d do with $100 dollars.

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“He talked about how he’d use that money to buy dog beds, leashes and food for dogs that needed homes,” the mother said. “And we thought, what’s a way to keep that spirit of loving kindness alive in our own lives and for others?”

The answer? A bigger garden and a bigger produce giveaway.

With her husband and Leal by her side, Fournel expanded the garden and started sharing their harvests — right about the time the pandemic hit.

Food shortages, fear and a broken sense of community were strengthened by the produce giveaways. Each Saturday, the family would set out a vegetal bounty, encouraging locals to help themselves, free of charge.

It was Leal who came up with the name of their farm stand: “L&O Farms” — for Leal and Oli, of course.

“It was slow at first,” Leal told NPR. “No one really came. No one knew about it. But slowly, people have made it a habit of every week, every [Saturday] morning, they come by and they get some produce.”

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

Neighbors who’d never met started friendships, people were able to enjoy seasonal homegrown vegetables, herbs and flowers, and relationships were forged and strengthened. And Fournel has continued the tradition through today, setting out up to 30 pounds of produce every weekend, depending on what’s growing.

“When you learn about other people’s stories not only do you feel less alone but you also feel more called upon to make sure that they don’t feel alone also,” Fournel said.

Sometimes homemade bread and muffins make their way to the farm stand. Sometimes seedlings find new homes with neighbors, increasing the reach of L&O Farms.

“It’s just lovely, like you drive by [and] it just looks like this beautiful bounty of generosity,” neighbor Lisa Delmonico said.

And it’s been a wonderful way for a grieving family to heal and connect, all while continuing a young boy’s legacy of giving.

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