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Contributed photo by John and Paula Muina / Eden Muina

Students and staff at Berry College now have the opportunity to visit a special spot on campus known as the Garden of Eden any time they want to reflect on life and how to better make a difference in the world around them.

That is the hope of John and Paula Muina, the parents of 2020 Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School valedictorian Eden Muina.

The garden at the Rome, Georgia, college was named in their daughter's honor on Thursday after a car accident on Saturday, Sept. 11, that claimed the 20-year-old student's life.

The student was traveling to work early in the morning on Georgia Highway 1 when her Volkswagen Beetle was hit by one vehicle and crashed into another. She was flown to Erlanger hospital in Chattanooga, where she died the next day.

The Georgia State Patrol is investigating the accident, but that's not what the Muina family hopes the world remembers about Eden. For her parents, the garden, with its hope and nature, are a better reminder of who she was — a caring person who believed everyone should strive to do and be their best in and for the world.

"She was a person with strong character. She never compromised herself or her ethics, and she really believed that respect was the answer to so many of the world's problems," her father recalled Wednesday. "She thought if we all respected each other more, everything would improve and the whole world would be better for it."

Both John and Paula Muina said Eden was the sort of person for whom respect wasn't just extended to other people. She thought animals and the environment were equally deserving of it, and she spent her life encouraging others to share her passion for wildlife.

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Contributed photo by John and Paula Muina / Eden Muina and her mother, Paula Muina, pose together during a 27-mile hike benefiting the Make-A-Wish Foundation of East Tennessee.

When she was 15, Eden wrote a children's book called "Shurtle's Trust Crushed" that won first place at a school art show. In it, she described how the ocean could be made safer for sea turtles.

Another award-winning art piece featured an inscription begging others to help "Save Our Bees!" by avoiding pesticides and neonicotinoids.

In the speech she gave at her daughter's funeral, Paula Muina remembered all the times she served as Eden's "partner in crime."

Together, they visited area home improvement stores and taped anti-pesticide and anti-herbicide flyers to the front of Roundup displays. Once, when Eden was 18, she tried to convince her mother to join her outside a local seafood restaurant to protest the way it procured and prepared its seafood.

To this day, the Muinas have the poster Eden made for the protest. It features a crying cartoon lobster and the words, "Do you know how your food is prepared?" It sits proudly in Eden's childhood bedroom.

"You see, Eden was very passionate about righting the 'wrongs' that she saw in the world. She would get very frustrated and felt helpless that she was unable to do more to right those wrongs," Paula Muina said. "I have a powerful sense of peace when I think of Eden today. You see, all the things that she felt so helpless about, all the wrongs that she wanted to right I think God has given her a much bigger platform to work on those things. And I know she is really digging the fact that she has all the answers to all her questions now."

When she wasn't thinking about the environment, the Muinas said, Eden tried to bring awareness to other issues. She participated in the Trailblazer Challenge in 2017 and 2018, raising more than $2,200 and walking 27 miles twice for the Make-A-Wish Foundation of East Tennessee, which fulfills the wishes of children between the ages of 2 and 18 with critical illnesses.

Raising those funds and completing those hikes, her mother said, were what Eden was most proud of in her life.

"It was either that or getting a full scholarship to go to Berry. I remember they asked her during her interview what she was most proud of, and that's what she said," Paula Muina said. "She was proud to be able to do that. It meant a lot to her that she could."

In an essay shortly before her death, Eden wrote, "I suppose it was [my family] that taught me the concept of energy transfer: you get out what you put in. Children taught by fear and hate will only sow those bitter seeds and offer them back in return. Children taught by love will plant more seeds of love for the world."

She went on, "As I expand my knowledge of nature and people, I feel that the lines of my purpose in life will become more determinate. Until then, I will treat the unknown like a sister, and will nurture and embrace her until she blossoms and fruits something much bigger than myself."

At Berry, Muina was pursuing a degree in environmental studies and a minor in creative writing. She enjoyed horseback riding and often competed with her team from Saddle Rock Farm.

Among her parents' most treasured memories is a short letter she wrote to them before her death. In it, Eden thanked them for raising her and for the strong foundation they gave her.

"I hope that as I develop, I will be able to offer an equal exchange of the love and generosity that you have supplied. You're never too old to grow and discover new chapters in life. Always strive to be the best versions of yourselves," she wrote. "I am so proud that y'all are my parents. Life is too short not to wear your heart on your sleeve, so I figured I'd write this letter for y'all while I had free time."

The Muinas said they will forever try to heed that advice.

"I will always hear your voice in my head reminding me to be strong and stand up for what's right," Paula Muina said at the funeral. "Thank you for being the best daughter I could have asked for. I couldn't be any more proud of you, and you will always be in my heart."

Contact Kelcey Caulder at kcaulder@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.

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