NORTH PORT, Fla. - North Port's City Center Front Green isn't usually a busy part of town, with an open, quiet, park-like feel. However, in the past week, it's become a place for gathering, memorial, and reflection as community members await answers in the death of Gabby Petito and the disappearance of her fiancé, Brian Laundrie.
In the middle of the Center Front Green sits a giant tree.
"The gentleman who donated the tree wanted it to be the celebration. We light it every year for the holidays. Little did we know that it would be a gathering place for a memorial," said North Port Mayor Jill Luke.
The memorial to 22-year-old Gabby Petito grows by the day. Mayor Luke has watched as people from across Florida and the country have stopped to visit.
"That memorial has done so much. People identify with the Petito family, or a loss, or their daughter, and they identify and come. Some simply didn’t know her, but their heart is broken over the pain they see from the tragedy, but there are others that have come and reflected over their own journey in life and have been receiving healing," Luke said. "I know of one young lady who was just torn at the tree and crying. She went home and told her family about an incident where she was assaulted. She had kept it silent for years. But that memorial, Gabby’s life brought that healing to that entire family."
Tucked away from the media blitz, a sense of peace can be felt.
"I will admit, the first time I was there I walked away and sat in my car and balled and balled, because it touched my journey, my life also. My past experiences," said Mayor Luke.
This is what she hopes North Port will be remembered for, once the cameras disappear – a community brought together by tragedy and focused on helping one another.
"It means a lot to so many people, her life, her soul is so precious. The way she looked at life. People identify with that and so it’s blessed sacred ground," she said.
The city is working on plans for a bench to be placed near the tree, in honor of Gabby Petito, to serve as a permanent memorial in her honor.
"The memorial, who we are as a compassionate people, yes that is what I want us to be remembered for. Not the situation, not what happened, what evolved, but caring about one of our own. Yes, that’s what I want our city known for," said Mayor Luke.