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Her garden grows
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When Belinda Duckett's daughter was born with congenial myopathy, a rare degenerative muscle disorder, doctors told her she would likely suffer throughout a short life.

As Duckett's daughter Chrissy Howard grew up, she struggled with the disorder's symptoms of fatigue, loss of muscle tone and pain, and at the age of 9 was diagnosed with cardio myopathy, which affects the heart.

Built with the typical frame of a person with the muscle disorder, Chrissy weighed 96 pounds as she entered her senior year of high school.

"Most people are wheelchair bound by the time they're teenagers and gone by their 20's," Duckett said of her daughter, "but she still walked and really was a miracle for living as well as she did for as long she did."

Chrissy died in April after 11 days of difficulty breathing and pain caused by congestive heart failure. It was a month before she would have graduated from Social Circle High School.

Duckett described her daughter as very independent despite her illness. Chrissy paid for her own cell phone with money she made shampooing at Continental Hair Arts, where Duckett has worked for 17 years. Like most teenagers she was addicted to the computer. She loved attending rodeos.

"She was a little redneck kid," Duckett said. "Her whole room was camouflage. Her senior ring even had a big bass fish on it."

Chrissy also enjoyed taking self-portraits. One of Duckett's favorites will be featured on the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon aired on Labor Day to raise money for research.

As a frequent visitor to the Scottish Rite Muscular Dystrophy Association clinic, Duckett advocates the need for funded research.

"Most people believe the MDA clinic is just for muscular dystrophy, but its not. It's for all muscle disorders," she said.

Chrissy wanted to train for a career as an EMT after she graduated, but her inability to stand for long periods of time discouraged her dream. Still wanting to help people at their most desperate time, she decided to go to school in Loganville to become a 911 dispatcher.

One Saturday in March, Chrissy came to work at the salon and lounged between clients-not peculiar for her. But soon, she had trouble breathing. Duckett and Chrissy drove to the Scottish Rite clinic, where physicians diagnosed her with pneumonia and eventually sent her to Egleston Children's Health Care of Atlanta.

There breathing became almost an impossibility, and morphine could not fully numb her pain. After going into cardiac arrest Chrissy survived on life-support, but Duckett knew her daughter was gone.

Duckett said the community blessed her with financial support to pay for Chrissy's burial by setting up a memorial fund at BB&T and holding motorcycle and poker fundraisers at It's 5 o'Clock Somewhere. State Farm employees held a car wash fundraiser and involved some of the students cared for by Project Adventure, which looks after teenagers in the custody of the Department of Family and Children's Services.

"It helped them to see how important life is and not to take it for granted," Duckett said.

A few weeks ago Duckett decided to create a memorial garden at Social Circle High. She planted flowers, laid mulch and placed rocks donated by Fieldstone in Covington. One of Duckett's clients donated a limestone and bronze statue cast in California for the centerpiece of the garden. The limestone girl holds a book imprinted with Chrissy's birth and death date, the class of 2008 and the phrase, "gone too soon."

After school Monday several Social Circle High teachers, administrators and students gathered with members of Chrissy's family for the dedication of the garden. Duckett thanked everyone who supported her financially, emotionally and spiritually.

When Duckett began to cry, long-time client Buncie Hay Lanners stepped in to finish her prepared speech.

SCHS Principal Tony Overstreet told the crowd how much work Duckett had put into the garden during the past few weeks, even in scorching heat.

"She worked so hard on this last week that every day when I'd leave, she'd be on her hands and knees planting flowers," Overstreet said.

He also remembered Chrissy's unwavering optimism.

"About a week before she passed, I saw her in the hallway and asked how she was doing," Overstreet said. "She said, 'I feel great.' That's the last conversation we had and you could tell her answer really came from the heart."

Several of Chrissy's family members also shared memories of her.

"She was a typical teenager-she was sweet and sometimes moody," said Dianne Powell, her grandmother, "I miss Chrissy so bad."

Duckett said she hoped the statue of the small girl with a book outside of the school's library entrance will remind students of Chrissy's zest for life.

"I did this to symbolize her struggle and to be an inspiration," Duckett said. "Even though she did struggle, she still wanted to finish school and this was my way of having her finish."