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Families of kids with cancer help plant Garden of Hope

You’ve heard about the hopeful tree that grew in Brooklyn.

Now some Las Vegas kids with cancer and their parents plan to grow a whole garden of hope amid the asphalt and cement of downtown.

Out the backdoor of Mundo restaurant in the shadow of the behemoth World Market Center, Candlelighters of Southern Nevada’s Garden of Hope started to take shape Thursday afternoon. Thanks to a variety of helping hands, a strip of common dirt the shape of a bowling lane is being transformed into a place where vegetables, flowers and something greater one day will sprout from organic soil and the efforts of volunteers.

Tucked away on the side of the restaurant’s loading dock at 495 S. Grand Central Parkway, the garden spot is one of few spaces in the area that isn’t covered in cement at the World Market Center, a 5.5-million-square-foot monument to the furniture industry.

The hulking center looks more like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory than a setting for a garden dedicated to children with childhood cancer and their families.

But that’s what restaurant partners George Harris, Robert Solano and Mingo Collaso saw when they looked at the odd, barren rectangle. Chef Solano plans to use the garden’s produce in specialty dishes with proceeds benefiting Candlelighters.

Harris contacted Sarah Haggerty, who not only has a master’s degree in counseling and is associated with Candlelighters but also has a brother who is a landscape architect. For her, the garden is an ideal setting for children traumatized by cancer to nurture the soil and their bruised spirits, too.

“Now they have the chance to be the nurturer and take care of something and have that pride, the self-esteem, the self-confidence, the sense of accomplishment,” she says.

Artists Erica Deutsch and Diane Giusti coordinate Candlelighters’ Project Imagine therapeutic healing arts program and are responsible for the garden’s mural, which pays tribute to the children who fought so hard for life.

“This mural is actually going to be created by the siblings of angels, children that were lost to cancer,” she says. “This space will be commemorated to a healing garden, where they can meditate, be with their feelings and honor their lost loved ones.”

Robin Kelley, the charity’s development coordinator, observes, “That’s what we hope for these kids, that they can come down here, get their hands in the earth, grow something, and just be able to hang out with one another in a positive space outside the hospital setting.”

Before joining several dozen volunteers and families in initial preparation of the soil and planting of some flowers, Desean Courtney took in the hopeful scene. Her 12-year-old son, Karon, is being treated for Hodgkin lymphoma.

Karon’s cancer diagnosis “knocked the wind out of me a little bit,” Courtney says, understating the parental nightmare. She adds, “Candlelighters helped me out with transportation. They helped us out with some of the bills we had. They helped us out with counseling. As we got to the more difficult parts of treatment, it was kind of a stress relief to know that they had already figured out everything that we would need.”

Then she merges into the group of optimistic gardeners.

The artist Deutsch says, “Everything about this place represents life.”

In this unlikely garden, staked on common ground with an uncommon purpose, hope is the flower that blooms in all seasons.

JEREMY JOHNSON: It’s not news that Jeremy Johnson talks a good game. But now what the scamming St. George businessman is saying has echoed from the Utah attorney general’s office to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s doorstep.

In stories first published by the Salt Lake Tribune, Johnson is alleging he paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to Utah’s then-chief deputy attorney general John Swallow to chill out a federal investigation into the Internet company I Works. Johnson for years has been involved in Internet-based “up-sale” scams – in which customers are lured into a purchase at one price and then hit with expensive additional costs – that have generated at least $200 million, according to federal investigators. As I reported back in July 2011, Nevadans are among Johnson’s up-sale racket victims.

He also is a central figure in a federal fraud and money laundering investigation involving Internet poker site promoters Full Tilt Poker, PokerStars, and Absolute Poker.

In other words, Johnson’s credibility is more than suspect.

But lately Johnson has made big news with allegations that he conspired with Swallow, now Utah’s attorney general, to funnel up to $600,000 to Reid to halt the federal investigations into his business practices. He alleges funds were transferred through Provo businessman Richard Rawle to the law firm of longtime Las Vegas attorney Jay Brown, who is well-known as one of Reid’s closest friends.

Brown didn’t return a phone call seeking comment. Through his office, Reid flatly denied Johnson’s claims.

“The allegations of bribery by Mr. Johnson, a man with a background of fraud, deception and corruption, are absurd and utterly false,” Reid spokeswoman Kristen Orthman said. “Bribery is a crime for which Senator Reid has personally put people behind bars. Senator Reid will not have his integrity questioned by a man of Mr. Johnson’s low record and character, and his outrageous allegations will not go unanswered. Clearly, a desperate man is making things up.”

Brown’s at times tumultuous career as a political fundraiser, lobbyist and lawyer adds an intriguing element to Johnson’s story. Trouble is, even Johnson admits he doesn’t know whether Reid received a dime.

WISH RUN: There’s still time to lace up the sneakers and join Saturday’s 12th annual Run for a Wish hosted by Kendall Tenney at Town Square Las Vegas.

The run benefits Make-A-Wish Southern Nevada, a charity that grants special wishes for children facing life-threatening medical conditions. With 5K and 1-miles distances, race-morning signups start at 7, with the first starting gun set to go off at 9 a.m.

You’re bound to see someone you know. By the time the race is finished, you will have helped provide smiles to children facing daunting medical challenges.

COMIC BANKER: Legendary Las Vegas sportsman Lem Banker admits he tells some old jokes, but at 85 he qualifies as an old gambler.

Perhaps you’ve heard the one about the woman spotted at the sold-out Super Bowl next to an empty seat. When asked why the seat was empty, she replied, “It was my husband’s, but he died.”

When asked why she didn’t give the coveted extra ticket to her friends or a member of her family, she shrugged and said, “They aren’t available. They’re at the funeral.”

BROTHERLY LOVE: Veteran sports handicapper Chris Jordan reminds me that you can bet on just about anything during the Super Bowl. His favorite this year is the 7.5-second over/under proposition on the length of the post-game hug and handshake between coaching Harbaugh brothers, the Ravens’ John and the 49ers’ Jim.

Take the cold shoulder over the bromance, Jordan says. “Even for brothers, that seems a bit high,” he says.

He says, “After the game, it’s going to be a quick handshake and then move on.”

Have an item for Bard of the Boulevard? Email comments and contributions to Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/Smith. He is a member of the Candlelighters board.

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