WESTERLY — Lorri Urso Dean stood next to an angel Monday afternoon. The Angel of Hope to be exact.
A statue on the grounds of the Westerly Hospital, the Angel of Hope, was holding a baseball, a baseball bat and a dream weaver, and was adorned with a necklace. Scattered around her base were pennies, stones and other miniature mementos.
People leave things here all the time, Dean explained. Some people come on purpose, she said, others arrive by happenstance.
"There's always someone here," said Dean, a Westerly schoolteacher who was largely responsible for bringing the statue to Westerly 15 years ago. "There's a need for a place to find solace and hope."
On Thursday evening at 6 p.m., Dean said, people will gather around the statue for the 15th Annual Angel of Hope Vigil in the Memorial Garden.
"Sometime we have hundreds of people, and sometimes just a few," said Dean. "We've been here in sleet and snow, and we've been here on beautiful starry nights."
No matter the weather, she said, everyone is welcome to attend the ceremony, especially people in the throes of grieving.
"Life is hard enough but when you throw grief into the narrative," said Dean, it can be even more difficult. "And the holidays can be a sad, hard time of year."
"The annual vigil," she said, is a time for fellow grievers to come together, it's "a way to let people know they're not alone."
"People walk away feeling hope," she said.
Plans to bring the Angel of Hope statue to Westerly began about two decades ago when Dean and Bradford resident Candice Kenyon made a heartfelt connection. Kenyon, who came upon an Angel of Hope memorial statue on a trip to Florida, was intrigued with the statue's origin. The memorial, it turned out, was based on a story, "A Christmas Box," by Richard Paul Evans.
In the book, a work of fiction, a woman mourning the loss of her child finds comfort at the base of an angel statue. "A Christmas Box," a popular book, prompted readers to ask if a statue really existed. In response, Evans commissioned a bronze angel sculpture to be dedicated in a Salt Lake City cemetery on the same date as the death of the fictional child in "The Christmas Box," Dec. 6, 1994. Coincidentally, Evans wrote at the time, Dec. 6 is celebrated as "Children's Day" in many parts of the world.
In an effort to find local people willing to bring such a statue to Westerly, Kenyon placed an ad in The Westerly Sun. Dean, whose daughter, Rachel Walker Dean, died from sudden infant death syndrome in 1992, saw the ad and and reached out to Kenyon.
"I was into my tenth year of mourning my daughter's loss," said Dean, "of not having her with me — and knew I had to do something different."
"Plus, I've always had a fascination with angels, ever since I was young," said Dean, "I called Candy and said, 'How can I help?"
Together, Dean and Kenyon reached out for help, asking people for fundraising ideas and advice.
Dean, a runner, ran the Mystic Places Marathon in memory of her daughter, and raised the initial $12,500, which kicked off a three-year volunteer effort to raise the rest of the money. The response from the public exceeded expectations.
In the end, enough money was raised for the angel, a memorial garden, four granite benches and the 4-foot engraved granite base for the statue.
Richard Comolli, of Comolli Granite in Ashaway, donated his services for the granite work, and excavation of the parking lot was donated by Cherenzia Excavation Inc. Frank Verzillo offered to donate the concrete foundation to hold the granite base for the statue, and the pavers around the statue were donated by United Builders. A crew from the hospital prepared the land around the memorial.
The Angel of Hope statue in Westerly — the only one of its kind in Rhode Island — was dedicated in a ceremony that attracted hundreds of people. Although primarily created for those who have suffered the loss of a child, the garden is open to all, Dean said.
"Everybody's been a child of someone," said Dean.
People who have lost parents or siblings or spouses, added Dean have found comfort at the garden, and many people have made donations over the years. An Angel of Hope Memorial Wall stands near the statue listing the names of donors. Anytime a donation is received, by the hospital in memory of someone, the names go on a white panel that accommodates 40 names. A nominal donation each year ensures that the name is repeated each year. One plaque will be moved permanently to a hospital location annually.
"My dad's name is there," said Dean, pointing to her father's name on the plaque. When her father, the late Angelo A. "Buba" Urso, Jr., died in 2017, his obituary listed The Angel of Hope Fund, c\o Westerly Hospital Foundation, as one of the places mourners could leave donations in his memory.
On Thursday, said Dean, each of those gathered will be given a candle to be lit. People will then be encouraged to share a story about their loved one, or just mention her or his name, she said.
"It's really just about being together and connecting," she said.