Editor’s note: This is part of a four-story package on Quartzsite, Arizona — a snowbird mecca that draws a huge cross-section of Americans, including hundreds of retired Latter-day Saints.
QUARTZSITE, Ariz. — Celia Winer ran around the park laughing and playing just like all of the other 8-year-olds that night in 1994. No one at the elementary school open house in Quartzsite, Arizona, could have guessed her past or could have known that a town legacy was to be born from a mother’s worst nightmare.
Joanne Winer was told by every doctor she saw — and she saw a lot of them — that conceiving a child was impossible for her. At the age of 37, she had given up, but that year brought a special surprise. She and her husband Paul were expecting a baby. After the initial shock and worry wore off, they began to busily prepare for their baby girl’s birth.
But tragedy struck again when Celia was born 17 weeks premature. She was barely over a pound, Winer said, and her head was the size of a lemon. Winer couldn’t hold her miracle baby for three months and couldn’t take her home for five months, but she knew instantly that Celia was a fighter.
“She was always very healthy,” Winer said. “She was just so unbelievably tiny.”
And she seemed healthy on the playground that spring night. Celia ran in from playing, face red and sweaty all over. The fears of the first year of her life were gone, and nothing could keep her from enjoying nature and rescuing stray animals.
Joanne said dinner that night was uneventful, but she remembered Celia was tired. At one point during the night, Celia picked her head up off the table to say, “Daddy, I think I’m going to die tonight.” They laughed it off together, but later that night, Celia became ill in bed and her mother sent her to the bathroom.
“Next thing I knew, I heard something hit the tub, and she was convulsing on the floor,” Winer said. “She died a minute later. It just came out of nowhere.”
Adventurous and beloved, Celia Winer was gone at just 8 years old, and her parents were left with an angel urn and a hole in their hearts. Celia’s Rainbow Garden was created the following year to memorialize Celia’s love for people, nature and her desert home. What started as a memorial to one little girl is now one of the most visited places in Quartzsite.
“I want the garden to be a place that lifts people’s spirits,” Winer said. “I just feel so much peace out there, and yet it’s been a real struggle to get it as far as I have. But every time I feel like giving up, a little voice in my head says, ‘Don’t give up mom. You have to finish my garden.’”
The solace and peace Winer garners from her daughter’s garden is the driving force behind it. It is the feeling of comfort and awe that brings people in from all over the world. Whether they stay a day or a couple of months, Celia’s Rainbow Garden is one of the first stops for every traveler to Quartzsite Winer said. The Winers said they still receive dozens of letters each year from strangers who felt peace and love there.
The Winers are not the only ones that put time, love and money into the space; the whole town has pitched in to make it a popular tourist destination. The Mormons built the amphitheater, the gardening club made the chapel trail, the Quartzsite Veterans Association created the veteran trails and the mini pioneer village was donated by the local museum.
The Rock and Gem Club has a display pavilion and the giant archway bells that welcome everyone to the garden were donated 15 years ago. It is named The Hero’s Bell Garden.
The garden has always been a community effort, and that is what Winer hopes visitors will take away from her daughter’s memorial.
“I think that’s what I want people to remember about Quartzsite, is that we are a small town, but the whole town gets together in an emergency,” Winer said. “More than anything, I want people to see Quartzsite as a beautiful community. It’s not the most beautiful place in the world, but it is a community full of wonderful people, and this is something that (has) captured everyone’s heart.”
Celia’s Rainbow Garden now has a virtual presence as well; webpages continue to pop up online touting it as a “must see and do” in Quartzsite. A project that began because “somebody who fought that hard to live deserves to be remembered” has touched people from around the globe.
Celia Winer is remembered daily by her parents, her town and now, hundreds of thousands of strangers who visit her garden each year.