DURHAM — Long before the first bell had sounded Tuesday morning at the Durham School of the Arts, students were scooping shovels full of rocky clay in front of the school.
As buses and cars arrived, more students grabbed shovels and joined in.
They knew that while they could envision the fragrant yarrow, lavender and irises that soon would be in place, they were creating a colorful sanctuary for those no longer around to see it.
"It's for the people that died," seventh-grader Jacob Sutton said.
Since 2004, three teenagers at the visual and performing arts magnet school have passed away abruptly. To keep their memories in mind, volunteers from the secondary school (grades 6-12) have given their money, plants and time to create the Big-Hearted Garden.
The memorial is dedicated to Bennie Vanhook, a 17-year-old who was shot and killed in December; Jonathan Henderson, a 14-year-old who died in 2006, and Aaron Morgan, 15, who died in in 2004.
Volunteers work on the 2,000-square-foot garden on weekends and sometimes before school, as Margaret O'Brien did starting at 8 a.m. Tuesday.
O'Brien hopped onto the back of her shovel in blue Nike flip-flops, tossing small chunks of soil behind her. Later, she said she tried not to think about her late friend Henderson while digging, but she did.
"He always was smiling," said O'Brien, who said Henderson often helped her and the yearbook staff. "He gave the best hugs."
Both Henderson and Morgan died of problems that caused enlarged hearts. Morgan's condition was undiagnosed until he collapsed and died while playing basketball.
Henderson was open about his heart condition, restrictive cardiomyopathy, said teacher Carolyn Maynard, who is organizing the garden project and knew the late student.
"He was a creative, sweet person," Maynard said. "He was very aware that his life was a gift."
Maynard thinks it will be summer before the garden comes together. It's composed of several sections of land in front of the school's main entrance and auditorium. Soon it will be covered with mums, pansies and the dangling bells of plants known as angel's trumpets.
The finishing piece of the garden's main tract will be a heart carved from the stump of a willow-oak tree that once stood in front of the school, but recently died. Plaques with the late students' names will be added.
Angela Henderson said she's touched by the memorial to her son, and earlier this month she brought his brother and cousins to help in the garden.
She said the name of the space is well-suited.
"He would just say, 'Momma, I'm a little guy with a big heart,' " Henderson said of her son.