APPLETON — This year, with everyone shut up in their houses and disconnected from others, Karen Rickert — who lives along Apple Creek Trail in Appleton — decided to do something for people walking the trail.
She put up decorations. First came an Alice in Wonderland tea party and then, in September, she started on Halloween. Her husband, Jerry, and her grandchildren helped.
All that came down the night of Oct. 4, when vandals destroyed 100-plus hours of work, as well as a prayer/rosary garden that Karen, a member of St. Thomas More Parish in Appleton, had just started. And several trees.
“When Jerry first took me outside to see it,” Karen said, “I just fell to the ground sobbing. It was very painful to see all the destruction.”
Halloween decorations were torn apart and twisted, with some tossed into the creek. Decorations that Karen’s father had made were ruined, as were wooden blocks of the rosary garden she had hoped to finish by Oct. 7, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.
Even what was left of Alice’s tea party — sets of dishes glued to a wire spool table — were smashed.
“The reason I did Alice in Wonderland,” Karen told The Compass, “was that everybody is stuck in the house and maybe, if they got on the trail and walked by, (it would help). Women would stop and say, ‘What will you put out next?’”
Even worse, in Karen’s mind, were the damaged trees. The Rickerts live on land where Jerry lived as a child and, in the past few years, Karen had planted trees of all varieties.
“This summer, the grandkids counted all the trees,” she said, “and got to 260.”
Now limbs were torn off, some tree trunks were split in half. Some of the trees will survive, but many won’t, according to an arborist the Rickerts hired.
Police came, but, so far, have no leads. They took some of the rosary pieces as evidence, so Karen can’t put that back, but she is already restarting the prayer garden.
When news of the vandalism hit local and social media, traffic on the trail picked up.
“I never see the neighbors across the street,” Karen said, “but, those two days especially, people were out and talked (to us) across the creek. They commisserated and wondered, ‘Who would do such a thing?’”
“Everybody who stopped wanted to talk,” Karen added.
Most encouraged her to start again. A stranger, who shares a common parish friend, went door to door collecting money for new decorations.
“I didn’t realize our trail was that popular,” Karen said. “I was pretty happy and writing thank you notes to anybody who donated.”
She plans to use the money for replacement trees — and additional trees, with the goal of reaching 300 trees.
At first, Karen hesitated to replace the holiday decorations. But her 4-year-old grandson, Liam, convinced her.
“Nana, I want to see them all fixed up,” he told her, before he was diagnosed with COVID-19 and had to be quarantined from her for two weeks.
“Today (Oct. 21) he came back,” Karen said. “He looked up and said, ‘You put it all back up. I am so happy.’ He was so excited, it was worth it.”
She also put back her “Black Lives Matter” sign. Jerry asked if she thought it might have caused the vandalism.
“No,” she answered. “This isn’t political — no, it’s about right and wrong. You have to respect people of all colors. I respect all people.”
But then she met a woman along the trail as she was putting decorations — and the “Black Lives” sign — back up.
“A lady about my age comes walking by and says to me, ‘Can’t a person even take a walk and not have to see a political sign?’ … I responded, ‘Black Lives do matter.’ Her response to me was, ‘Maybe in your life, it matters.’”
“Wow,” Karen said, “that’s all I can say is ‘Wow.’”
There is also an addition to the original decorations: a heart.
After the vandalism, they talked about posting a reward. But then Jerry asked Karen, “Does it help you to find out who did it?”
She thought about it and decided that it didn’t. “That’s when I came up with the idea of praying for that person,” she said. “That person needs to be prayed for — for their heart to be lightened.”
So those who walk the trail will see a large heart — and smaller foam hearts nearby.
Karen wants people to “take a heart and say a prayer for the vandal and pin the heart on the giant heart. I want people to pray for this person or persons.”
And, even though Halloween will soon be over, Karen might have other plans.
“People are asking about Thanksgiving and Christmas,” she said. “I tell them, ‘You will have to wait. And get out and walk.’”