South Tahoe High student spearheads memorial garden project on campus |

South Tahoe High student spearheads memorial garden project on campus

Ashleigh Goodwin
Special to the Tribune
A memorial garden has been established at South Tahoe High School. | Ashleigh Goodwin/Tahoe Daily Tribune

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — After a devastating loss in 2021, South Tahoe High School senior Abel Arce spearheaded a project to produce a memorial garden situated in the heart of the campus. 

In a collaborative effort, grief and heartbreak were channeled with the help of students and staff to produce a space to reflect, relax and commemorate those gone too soon. 

A succulent area is part of the memorial garden. | Ashleigh Goodwin/Tahoe Daily Tribune

With funding provided, support from staff members and contributions from the student body, the school now has a culinary herb and plant garden, a rock garden featuring painted rocks, a succulent garden, sculptures and a safe space for the students. 

“My junior year I lost my best friend to suicide,” Arce said, “I didn’t know how to handle it at first, because I didn’t really feel anything.” 

While sitting in the STHS “Learning Center,” a large classroom and adjacent outside space, Arce got the idea to leave a legacy in honor of his friend and make a difference on campus.   

Superintendent Dr. Todd Cutler shares a moment with Abel Arce. | Provided/Ashleigh Goodwin

Katie Wheelen, a special education teacher, awarded Arce the project manager position and started working to make his dream a reality. 

The space revitalization was initiated in Wheelen’s first year on campus. In the early 2000’s, special education students built raised garden beds that ultimately fell into disrepair over the years.  

Wheelen and school psychologist Natalie Collin went to work finding funding to make the garden a reality. Students diligently outlined the process, cost and plan of execution which was used in the requests for grant monies. 

The El Dorado County California Retired Teachers’ Association provided funds to purchase the chosen plants and necessary resources to care for them. Embarc Tahoe Cannabis Dispensary provided a $1,000 grant to furnish the area with tables and chairs. The furniture was assembled by the carpentry and construction class supervised by Tom Castles. Last Friday, the furniture was delivered to complete the welcoming ambiance.  

This year several seniors turned to the garden to complete their capstone project; Senior Projects have been a cornerstone for all graduates at STHS since 1995. Through the completion of this rigorous project students plan, research and execute a series of assignments that encourage a deep dive into potential career paths.  

According to the STHS website it is “designed to afford graduating seniors the opportunity to investigate a career, learn a new skill, or do some recreational activity they always wanted to do, all the while pushing themselves beyond what they previously thought they could do.”

Michael Maxwell’s senior project displays his interest and expertise as a horticulturist. A part of the memorial garden, Maxwell’s legacy will produce herbs for the future culinary classes to use in their menus and provide ample opportunity to enjoy the educational benefits of researching, designing and installing plants.  

“The Memorial Garden is a special place, this school is a great place with great people,” said Lake Tahoe Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Todd Cutler, who got teary eyed talking with Arce about the impact this project has had on the campus. 

“What an incredible gesture, execution, and follow through on behalf of the students. It’s meaningful to the kids,” said Principal Justin Zunino. “Katie Wheelen was a huge part of the garden. We are very proud of this treasure. Abel’s artwork and the support provided by Katie are a treasure for us.” 

The day of her interview to join the STHS team Wheelen was featured on the front page of a newspaper for her work on high altitude gardening. Zunino said the principal at the time saw the article and struck a deal to build a garden. 

Sustaining the garden has been shouldered by the staff involved in the process. Senior English Teacher Anneliese Tillson’s classroom borders the memorial garden. 

Tillson said, “Without a proper sprinkler system and daily attention we don’t know how it will survive.” 

STHS is asking for community assistance in maintaining this campus treasure. As Wheelen prepares to retire this year the school’s beloved garden has been reinvigorated. 

For those interested in contributing to the garden’s irrigation system, email Zunino at

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