Three Olentangy Liberty High School seniors hope their final project before graduation will provide future students a place for peace during hectic school days.

Students Ryan Evans, Ellie MacDowell and Chloe Rabinowitz are working to install a "serenity garden" outside the high school's library.

Their plan is to put a 12-by-16-foot concrete patio in the space and fill it with seating and a variety of planters and foliage.

Evans said the three students hope the space can "combat Liberty's stressful atmosphere with a connection to the environment."

The idea came from the group's college-prep 12 English class as an "action research project." Because it was going to cost thousands of dollars and occupy a piece of school property, the first major hurdle was gaining approval from Principal Michael Starner.

The concept was intimidating for the students at first, and Evans said they "overplanned" drastically.

"We made this whole PowerPoint presentation," she said with a laugh

But Starner said he required little convincing.

"As soon as I heard 'patio, extension of our library, serene place for our students,' it was a no-brainer," he said. "We were all in."

Starner said plans already were in the works to create a "corridor" in and around the library focused on safe spaces, soft furniture and other welcoming areas, which now will lead into the serenity garden.

"It's a whole overhaul of the school that's going to allow kids to understand that they're welcome -- it's safe; it's inviting," he said.

For the students, that effort from the school matters. Rabinowitz said she thinks the school's emphasis on being safe and welcoming makes a difference for students.

"It's nice to feel it in the school, to see things in motion and see people wanting to do all these different things," she said. "Because the worst thing about negative mental health or not having self-esteem or being really stressed is that you're not sure if you're alone in it. So seeing a school and our community coming together for it is something really cool."

The next hurdle was to find funding for the project, which likely will cost several thousand dollars. But after Evans posted about the project to a Powell Facebook group, Elford Construction in Columbus volunteered to provide the concrete slab required for the project -- the most expensive portion -- at no cost.

"I keep telling them, 'I hope you guys don't think life is this easy,' " Starner said with a laugh.

"It's a byproduct of their planning and organization and preparation, but every corner they've turned, they've either been lucky, someone has been willing to help them or the community has stepped up. It's been really cool to watch."

Now, the group is working to raise the remaining funds for garden boxes, soil and other small additions to the space. A GoFundMe crowdfunding page aims to reach $1,800 in donations, and already was approaching $1,000 as of March 18.

For the students, seeing so much support for their idea makes them hopeful that attitudes about mental health are changing.

"It's been really cool to see the community come together with this," MacDowell said.

When it's complete, the garden will be called the Robert Bell Serenity Garden, named after a popular and longtime school custodian who died suddenly in January.

The students received permission from his family to make the garden his namesake, and they said they hope it serves as a fitting legacy.

"He's someone who cared so much about this school and about maintaining it and keeping it perfect," MacDowell said. "I feel like this garden is going to be a physical thing that people can look at and see him within our school."

Starner said he's thrilled to see projects like these come from the minds of his students, and said he hopes students continue to try to tackle issues that are important to them.

"A large percentage of the projects that kids are choosing focus on mental health," he said.

"It reminds me of last year, after the tragedy in Parkland, Florida, who was the group who stood up? It was young people who stood up and said, 'enough.' I would like to see student voices stand up like this, not just in the face of tragedy, but when we're faced with ongoing problems like mental health."

All three students said they hope the garden can be a mark of progress, and Rabinowitz said she sees it as a "culmination" of their four years in high school.

"Over the past four years, it's been up and down, up and down about mental health and representation in the school," she said, "so it's nice to see what we want to get done and what we want for representation is actually happening."

The students' goal is to finish the garden by the time they graduate in the spring. Starner said construction progress largely will depend on weather.

To donate to the project, go to gofundme.com/olhs-serenity-garden.

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