How do you honor the memory of a young woman who died too young and touched so many people? That’s what Lisa Benatar and her family have struggled to decide for the past four years as their daughter Emily’s birthday comes around on February 11th. A graduate of Paly High School’s class of 2011, Emily died of bacterial meningitis when she was a freshman at Washington University in St. Louis.
Emily’s Way Projects honor a memory and give back
And while the shock of this loss never fully subsides, the Benatar family has put together creative and beautiful projects they call “Emily’s Way,” which not only pay tribute to Emily but also evoke her positive energy and desire to make a difference.
Past Emily’s Way projects have included card-writing for United States soldiers and veterans through Operation Gratitude, a campaign called OwnYourHealthInfo to encourage college students to keep their health information on their phones, and a showing of Emily’s art, along with an effort to assemble art kits for Girls to Women in East Palo Alto.
A farmer in Georgia emerges as an unlikely inspiration
But this fall, Lisa Benatar grappled to figure out a project that would both inspire others and appropriately remember Emily’s passion for art and bringing people together. The discourse around the presidential election was disheartening and Lisa, like many people, was wishing there could be a way to build bridges instead of increasing divides. Then one day a story on NPR sparked an idea that would prove how little politics matter when it comes to the human experience.
The story Lisa heard was about Jon Jackson, a US army veteran who returned from 11 years in active duty with post traumatic stress (PTS) and brain injuries.
To heal himself and his fellow soldiers, Jon started Comfort Farms in Milledgeville, GA, where veterans find solace and healing by learning to work the land. Jon named the farm to honor his friend Kyle Comfort, whom he served with in Afghanistan. See this video about Comfort Farms to learn more.
Shared experience of grief transcend a political divide
Although Jon was described in the NPR story as an African American man and Trump supporter in a deep ‘red’ state, Lisa felt an immediate connection to his story.
Lisa reached out to Jon by phone to see if there was a way to help Comfort Farms through a project for Emily’s Way. After a long conversation, they settled on the idea of raising funds so that Jon could buy a much needed tractor for the farm.
And when Lisa asked about an art project that could honor Emily, Jon thought of making butterfly-themed ceramic tiles for a fire pit he wanted to build at Comfort Farms.
Raising funds for a tractor and making butterfly tiles
Why butterflies? Jon said his ‘artsy’ friend Melissa compared the vets to caterpillars when they were in active duty, then return home and often go through a dark “meltdown” phase, similar to a caterpillar in its chrysalis stage.
Jon bristled at first at the thought of Army Rangers and butterflies in the same sentence, then thought, “You’re absolutely right. You’re not going to be the person you were before. There’s got to be a transformation.” Jon created Comfort Farms as a place where he hopes that transformation can take place.
Gathering to remember Emily and support Comfort Farms
On December 23rd, friends and relatives gathered at the Palo Alto Art Center to make butterfly-themed tiles and raise funds for Jon’s tractor for the 2017 Emily’s Way event. The event brought in $15,000 and the The Emily Benatar Foundation contributed $12,500 to reach the $27,500 needed to buy a new tractor for Comfort Farms.
Delivering the donation in person…on Emily’s birthday
And in a final coincidence, the Benatar family ended up traveling to Georgia on February 11th for a wedding that happened to take place that day. As they were just a few hours from Comfort Farms, they drove together to meet Jon and give him the check in person.
…”We all have more in common than we realize”
It was a magical meeting and one that reinforced all that Lisa and her family had learned through getting to know Jon and sharing their mutual stories of loss and remembrance. “Meeting Jon and working together on the Emily’s Way Project proved that political differences are not important in the end,” Lisa said. “We all have much more in common than we realize.”
Jon echoed this thought in a note to Lisa Benatar when he said, “Every tractor deserves a name and I would like to call ours Emily and …put a sticker on there that says “Together Forever,” meaning that no matter what our political beliefs, social or religious beliefs, we are Together Forever. We are all American…Thank you so much Lisa. I am forever grateful!!
To learn more…
- Visit the Emily’s Way website to find ways to do service in Emily’s memory.
- Check out Comfort Farms on Facebook, or watch this video about Jon Jackson’s effort to support fellow veterans.
- Donate to Stagvets, Jon Jackson’s veteran support organization.