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Tampa kindergarteners celebrate Phoebe Jonchuck with 'reading garden'

Stepping stones created  in memory of  Phoebe Jonchuck by her kindergarten classmates at Cleveland Elementary School, family members and school staff  in the "reading garden." [CHERIE DIEZ | Times]
Stepping stones created in memory of Phoebe Jonchuck by her kindergarten classmates at Cleveland Elementary School, family members and school staff in the "reading garden." [CHERIE DIEZ | Times]
Published Jun. 3, 2015

TAMPA — For weeks, the kindergarteners worked on their stepping stones, studying the shapes, penciling their plans, picking out pieces for the presents they were making for Phoebe — their friend who was "up in Cloud School."

"I miss Phoebe," one girl wrote beside a smiley face.

"I luv Febe," another inscribed above two stick figures holding hands.

The girl who had sat next to Phoebe Jonchuck, who had been her first best friend, drew an angel with curly hair, a steep smile, and fluttery wings. "Phoebe," she sketched, "You are my friend!"

On Monday, the students planted their stones near their classroom at Cleveland Elementary School, rimming rows of newly planted blue flowers and butterfly bushes.

On Tuesday — five months after Phoebe's father, John Jonchuck, dropped her from a bridge to her death — administrators, teachers, students and family members gathered to dedicate the new "reading garden" to the girl who loved pink and purple, Rapunzel and My Little Pony, who spent recess pretending to be a kitten and making her classmates laugh.

"This corner has always been our own quiet spot. The children love to come out here to read, and have me read to them," said Micha Olivier, who had been one of Phoebe's kindergarten teachers. "We just wanted to build a place where they could remember her and feel close to her. This semester has been really hard."

Phoebe had just turned 5 when she started school in August. For a few weeks, her dad walked her to class. Then her grandmother started bringing her. Phoebe cried sometimes when they left. But she never missed a day of school. Until she didn't come back from Christmas break.

Her teachers and classmates wondered and worried. But no one was prepared for the news just after midnight on Jan. 8 when an off-duty police officer pulled over a white PT Cruiser on the approach to the Sunshine Skyway bridge — and watched Phoebe's father drop her off the six-story-high span into the chilly waves of Tampa Bay.

"No one could believe it. We didn't know what to tell the kids," Olivier said. "A grief counselor had them write letters to her in heaven, which they came to call Cloud School."

While prosecutors press a murder charge and a court-appointed attorney invokes an insanity defense, John Jonchuck, 25, waits in a state mental health facility until officials can declare him fit to face trial.

In the meantime, strangers sent donations to the school. The family more than matched their contributions. And by May, Phoebe's fund had topped $5,000.

The garden was her teachers' idea. They bought two purple metal benches and planted a cherry tree, then got Home Depot to donate cement, which they poured into 36 molds. Students stuck in glass gems, plastic ladybugs and daisies; they sprinkled on turquoise, gold and strawberry-colored sparkles. When their teachers sprayed their art with shellac, the stones shone like mermaid scales.

They finished the last one Monday — a sunflower shape with 20 petals. Each child pressed one finger into a petal, and the teachers added theirs in the center. Across the top, Olivier wrote, "Forever in our class!"

"We're going to give this one to MawMaw, so she can give it to Phoebe," said the teacher, referring to Phoebe's grandmother.

"To Phoebe?" asked a boy in a red polo shirt.

"Yes," said the teacher. "It will go where she's resting, so you'll always be with her, and she'll always be with you."

At Tuesday's ceremony, Phoebe's grandmother, Michele Jonchuck, thanked the kindergarteners and hugged each one. Olivier announced that every student will get a book from Phoebe, and the school library will have a whole shelf of new books. Two girls sang songs they had written for their friend.

And at the end, everyone looked up and blew kisses to the clouds.

As the children filed back to the classroom, a girl with a long braid lingered. When a boy turned back to get her, she said, "I wish Phoebe could see this."