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River Valley Ranch dedicates memorial garden to boy killed by storm

As Antoinette Benns planted the last begonia in her son Justin Diggs' memorial garden on Sunday, six River Valley Ranch staff members sang "Great is Thy Faithfulness." Justin, a 12-year-old Pikesville Middle School honor student, was killed July 8 when a tree fell on him during a violent thunderstorm at River Valley Ranch, a Christian summer camp in the Millers community in Carroll County.

Eight other children in the camp were treated after being injured during the same storm.

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"Justin really loved camp and the River Valley Ranch," Benns said. "He was an outside boy."

Over 60 people attended the ceremony to honor Justin's memory. Benns and the camp's staff said they placed a bench and garden overlooking the camp's playground, where Justin liked to spend his free time. Dan and Cody Lunceford of Echo Valley Landscape in Manchester donated their landscaping expertise to create the garden and Badolato Stone in Cockeysville donated the flagstones.

"He was my greatest accomplishment," Benns said, adding, "My job was to find him the best, most adventurous camp … I sent him to camp to grow and mature and be the young man I wanted him to be. He had a wonderful time here and he didn't want to come home."

Jon Bisset, executive director of River Valley Ranch, said the dedication ceremony was the first time many of the campers had returned to the site.

"Antoinette wanted this event to be something very productive and positive," he said. "Through this tragedy, this group has formed a real community."

Terrell Brown, of Hampstead, said Justin was one of his best friends at camp. Terrell said he and Justin enjoyed playing ga-ga ball, a game which is similar to dodge ball. The ga-ga ball court is just steps away from Justin's memorial garden.

"I can't forgive myself for not being with him when he died," Brown said. "We hung out every single second."

Camp program director John Zeigenfuse read the 23rd Psalm, "The Lord is My Shepherd," during the ceremony.

"In some way all of our lives were impacted," Zeigenfuse said. "We look at life a little bit differently and hold onto things a little more tenderly."

Jennifer Case, of Severn, brought her family to the ceremony to remember Justin. Her daughter Autumn, who plans to return to camp this summer, was also injured during the storm. Autumn sustained multiple skull fractures, two broken vertebrae, a broken collarbone, broken humerus, a concussion and facial fractures.

"It all happened in seconds and they only had a few minutes to get the kids to shelter," said Case.

Stephanie Hafez, of Perry Hall, said her son Connor also attended camp with Justin.

"This was good healing for both of us," Hafez said.

Bisset said the camp has established an endowment scholarship fund to honor Justin's memory. Each $15,000 endowment provides one scholarship per summer.

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