Kneeling in the snow, laying a white flower at the base of an angel statue in Salt Lake City, Culver and Nancy White had an epiphany.
At that moment in late December 2003, as they sought solace from an inspirational monument in a Salt Lake cemetery, they came to terms with the tragic death of their son two and a half years earlier.
Standing in the snow, Culver White’s knees buckled. "We had this epiphany, this experience," he said. "And we knew right then that we were bringing this to Phoenix."
The Whites will join other Valley parents of deceased children and author Richard Paul Evans, who inspired the monument through his book "The Christmas Box," at the dedication of the Angel of Hope memorial Sunday at Hansen Desert Hills Mortuary and Memorial Park in northeast Phoenix.
Sixty-three angel statues dot the map in cities across the United States; the Phoenix monument will be the 64th, and the first in Arizona where grieving parents can memorialize their lost children.
The Whites said they hope the statue will bring families the same peace they felt when they first saw it.
"When I saw the angel, there was hope," Culver said. "Hope that you would see your child again."
Hunter White was 19 years old when he was killed in a car crash March 14, 2001, in Peurto Penasco, known as Rocky Point, in Mexico.
Though a self-described "religious family," the Whites had never fully come to terms with their son’s death until they visited the peaceful statue, Culver recalled.
They have raised $65,000 of approximately $100,000 needed to complete the memorial and landscaping.
Located on a parcel of land 120 feet long and 70 feet wide, the monument will include the 5-foot-tall angel statue with a 6-foot wingspan, similar to the one in Salt Lake City Cemetery.
It will feature 60 granite plaques with the names, birth and death dates of deceased children, with room for 1,200 plaques at its completion, said Eloise Cole, a bereavement specialist for Hansen Mo r t u a ries Inc., which donated the land.
The memorial will eventually be surrounded by trees, white rose bushes and a water feature, Cole said.
The Angel of Hope statue concept originated in "The Christmas Box," a book Evans wrote in 1990.
A woman in the story mourns her dead child by weeping at the base of an angel statue at Salt Lake City Cemetery.
Evans, an advertising executive in Salt Lake, said he intended to write the book for family members only — "to express my love for my daughters."
The weeping character was based on a story told to Evans by Leah Perry, a local widow he had befriended.
In their childhood, Perry and her sisters met a weeping mother grieving at her child’s grave as they played in the cemetery. "Leah and her sisters sort of snuck up on her, and looked up at the (statue) and saw the face of an angel," Evans said.
"That just fit in perfectly with my book; it brought all the pieces together," he said.
In 1993, Evans’ small book was published by Simon and Schuster and became a New York Times best-selling novel. It has sold 8 million copies worldwide and was made into a television movie by Hallmark.
"After the book came out, people started calling, wanting to know where the angel statue was," Evans said. "They just assumed the book was true."
Yet the real-life statue had been washed away in a flood years before, Evans said.
So he commissioned a new statue in 1994. Since 1997, duplicate statues have been erected around the country through the efforts of The Christmas Box House International, a nonprofit foundation Evans founded, said spokeswoman Lisa Van Valkenburg.
"In 1997, we gifted one to Oklahoma City in memory of the children that were lost in the bombing," Van Valkenburg said. "At that time, it received so much attention that people started calling asking ‘How can we get an angel (statue in our city?’ "
The Whites sought to visit the angel statue after reading "The Christmas Box." "It had just intrigued me so much; I just had to see it," Nancy White said.
Cole, whose two sons Mark and Dan will be honored on the monument, said the memorial gives parents a place to reflect, meditate and mourn.
Mark died in 1984 and Dan in 1989, both of neurological diseases.
"It’s been a long time since my boys died, but to have a public place where my boys names will be — it feels good to me," she said.