Gary Pirkle Park in Sugar Hill stands out for its sprawling synthetic turf fields, the largest in the Southeast. The fields play host to soccer, lacrosse and semi-pro football and seem to always be busy with activity when I go for walks there.
You can’t miss the name of the park — large letters adorning the entrance ensure that — but it’s a much smaller sign away from the hustle and bustle of the artificial turf that always gets my attention. On the other side of the parking lot, away from the artificial turf, is a grass field that bears a sign proclaiming it James Avery Field.
Each time I pass it, I wonder about the person honored by the sign. Recently, I learned the story behind the tribute.
James Avery was the son of Jim and Meg Avery. Meg is a former Sugar Hill City Council member who served four years and was instrumental in developing the city recreation department among other things. The family moved to Sugar Hill in 1990.
James died of suicide in 1997 at the tender age of 14 after just five weeks of attending high school at North Gwinnett. He loved soccer, playing for what then was called the West Gwinnett association, and also refereed games for the younger age groups. That love made the tribute at the new park fitting, his mother said.
“It was really great. Just great,” Meg Avery said of the decision to name the grass soccer field in her son’s honor. “When parents lose a child it’s just a tragedy. You never expect to outlive your child.
“I think of James every day. (This tribute) is more valuable than gold. To have someone’s life remembered and mean something is heart-warming.”
Meg Avery speaks openly about her son, about suicide and the need to raise awareness of it. In May she helped organize a campus walk at North Gwinnet High, part of the Out of the Darkness program for the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention. Seventy people participated and more than $3,000 was raised. She is also active in the Lawrenceville chapter of Compassionate Friends, a support group for parents who have lost children.
“I try to tell people that it is OK to talk about,” she said of suicide. “The social stigma to suicide has eased somewhat, but it’s still there.”
Her husband is still involved with the Boy Scouts, and the couple are currently hosting their seventh exchange student, a girl from Slovakia who will attend the new Lanier High School.
They keep moving forward with their lives, but can’t help looking back as well. Meg Avery said it helps “to do things to remember and commemorate” their son. And she’s touched that the friends she made while serving the city have remembered her son in this way.
“(It’s nice) that people walk by and see that sign,” she said. “I think about him every day, but having a visible remembrance is just awesome. Especially associated with soccer, which he loved so much.
“I still like to watch soccer games, and it will be neat to see kids playing on James Avery Field.”
I’m glad I know the story of the sign and that field. And of the remembrance it provides and the awareness it might possibly impart now that others know as well.
E-mail Todd Cline at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Wednesdays.