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Family finds peace in its angel garden

Their back yard was an empty reminder of loss, but Home Depot and friends turned it into a haven of remembering.

For weeks after the awful day, nobody wanted to step in the back yard.

From the pool itself to the gloomy, lifeless yard, everything seemed to be a reminder that 22-month-old Mitchell Mann drowned there in July. His stepsisters refused to go in the yard, and nobody walked back there alone.

Something had to happen, Sandra Aguirre decided. She wanted the family to continue living in the house on Loquat Drive, so she looked for a way to change the yard from a barren symbol of the toddler's death to a spirited, lively shrine.

"This is where Mitchy is. We can never leave," said Aguirre, 35, who plans to marry Mitchy's father, Michael Mann, soon. "It had to be okay. It just had to."

Aguirre wrote a letter to Home Depot in Holiday, where she and Mann, 41, are regular customers. She explained the family's situation, how Mitchy had fallen into the pool July 7 and died two days later. She asked whether the store could donate seed or sod for the back yard, which had almost no greenery.

She didn't expect a response.

"I kind of felt stupid for writing the letter, to be honest with you," she said.

A week later, though, the store manager called and offered to help. Employees visited the house and asked what the family wanted to do with the yard. Aguirre told them of her plans to plant gardens and hibiscus bushes to brighten the area.

"I wanted it to be a safe haven," she said.

Home Depot granted her original request, and then took it a step further. They offered to bring the sod, seed, bushes, flowers and even the labor to do the work. The family was shocked.

Exactly a month after Mitchy fell into the pool, Home Depot workers spent the entire day at the house. They brought more than 30 bags of mulch, 20 bushes, seven spider plants and other materials.

Along with the Aguirre and Mann families, they transformed it with a new lawn, hibiscus bushes and bright flowers that would attract butterflies. Aguirre had her safe haven.

The yard was lovely, everyone agreed. The gloom was replaced by the cheerful pinks and reds, all the new signs of life. Almost immediately, the family felt comfortable going there again.

The pool remains, but it's clear that it is not used. The water is green, and tadpoles swim near the edge. The family doesn't talk about it much, focusing instead on the garden.

Aguirre is particularly pleased with the butterfly garden. The bright flowers are sprayed with sugar water regularly. Fake butterflies rest atop tall wires. Both are designed to attract the real thing.

"We've had some luck. We've had a few butterflies come back there," Aguirre said.

In addition to butterflies, the yard has attracted something else: statues of angels, all of them little boys, that stand guard over the flowers and bushes.

The family placed the first angel in the yard, then family and friends unexpectedly brought seven more. A few more are on the way, Aguirre said.

Elena Aguirre, 18, was frightened to go in the yard or even look out her bedroom window before the changes in the yard.

Now, she said, she feels more comfortable in the yard and even feels protected by the angel statues.

"I've been doing a lot of thinking out here," she said.

Family members look forward to planting a vegetable garden in the back corner of the lot.

They take some solace in the hard work of maintaining the yard, though they still struggle with their memories of Mitchy.

"I miss him because he used to do the watering with me," Aguirre said.

Outside, the bright flowers thrive under the early evening sun, surrounded by lush green grass. Hibiscus bushes burst with bright red blossoms that bow toward the statues of boy angels.

When they tend the garden, they remember their time with Mitchy.

"We haven't missed a single morning of watering it," Mann said.