Planting for peace

TJ David and Sylvia Villalobos

TJ David (left) and Sylvia Villalobos in the World Peace Rose Garden in Capitol Park.

TJ David (left) and Sylvia Villalobos in the World Peace Rose Garden in Capitol Park.

Photo by TJ David

The free 10-year-anniversary celebration of the World Peace Rose Garden in Capitol Park (15th and L streets) happens from 2 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, May 5. For more information, visit

Sylvia Villalobos and TJ David met 29 years ago when a water pump fell off Villalobos' car and David was tasked with fixing it. The two quickly formed a bond, chatting about roses as he fixed her car. In 1984, they teamed up to renovate the Gandhi World Peace Memorial in Pacific Palisades, Calif. This experience eventually led them to co-create the nonprofit International World Peace Rose Gardens in 1988, which has since built and maintained seven World Peace Rose Gardens around the world, including one in Capitol Park. In advance of this garden's 10-year-anniversary celebration on Sunday, May 5, the pair chatted with SN&R about thorn accidents, their favorite roses and the organization's mission to engage the world in peaceful activities.

What’s the best- smelling rose?

Sylvia Villalobos: Ask TJ. Whenever he's smelling a rose, that's his favorite. He loves so many of them. It's like picking your favorite star. They're all so beautiful, and they all have a certain personality and fragrance. Of course, there are some that are probably more outstanding. But each one has a certain beauty to it, like people.

TJ David: Yeah, each rose is like a friend. It's really hard to select [one] and say, “This is my really, really best friend.” We have so many really, really good friends, because each rose in the garden, to me, represents a different religion, a different culture, a different point of view. It represents diversity. That's what the garden is, and that's what society is. And that's why the World Peace Rose Garden, to me, is so meaningful.

Any bad experiences with thorns?

David: I have … one of those shirts I used to wear in the rose garden. And it's all pretty much ripped to shreds. And I call it my “business” shirt. [It's] all full of jaggedy holes. I figure that's the price you pay if you love America's official flower.

Villalobos: I've had a sore on my finger for about three months. It just really hurt, [and] it got infected. The [thorns] really become a part of you, and they don't like to come out. After a while, you just work with it, and you just see it as a part of working with roses.

David: Sometimes you don't [feel the thorns] if you've been working with roses. You take a shower and say, “Hey, where'd that come from?”

Villalobos: Roses are like life. You've got the beauty of the rose, and you've got the thorn of life. And we just really feel like the rose does represent the best in life and also what to look out for. You have to learn to work around those thorns and just concentrate on the beauty.

Favorite examples of peace from your organization’s work?

Villalobos: We have kids involved in writing messages of peace, and they get their messages engraved on plaques. And when they come, and from the depths of their heart they've thought of these beautiful concepts about peace, that's when I feel the connection. … I think our gardens are really connecting youth to the concept of peace in very subtle ways. We do hear from teachers about how kids have improved their behavior in schools after the kids have been in our contests … and [have] more confidence. So, we feel like we're affecting youth in ways that we probably don't even know about.

David: We know of one case in Atlanta, where [a] boy who won the [Inspirational Messages of Peace Contest]—the teacher told us that he was the classroom bully—and after he won, he became a model student. And so, that was interesting to [hear that] the teacher actually saw the difference in the behavior of that student. It's like he turned a different switch on. … There [are] different pathways in the garden with different roses at different heights. People can walk through the garden and kind of get lost in it, and find a bench that feels secluded for them, and kind of have a sense that it's their own little personal sanctuary for a while.

What’s in store for the 10th-anniversary ceremony?

Villalobos: It's going to be very diverse. We'll have Hawaiian dancers, Hmong dancers, dancers from the Sikh community, a jazz band … visiting students from Jinan, China, as part of our Sister Cities program … [and] artwork from Israel, China and Mexico. And we'll have this beautiful ceremony called the Qualities of Peace Ceremony, where we've created 60 different qualities of peace that we think make a person more peaceful. Those words will be put individually on flowers, and kids in the audience will be able to participate in the Qualities of Peace planting. So we have a lot of youth involved in this. … And we have Vietnam [War] veterans [performing a] posting-the-colors [ceremony].

Ever experiment with cooking or eating roses?

Villalobos: We've had rose tea. Actually, when we went to Hiroshima, Japan, and we met with a rose grower, he gave us rose tea from his roses. … We give people the petals so that they can do things with them.

David: I've never tried it in salads or things like that, but I imagine there are people that do, though.

Villalobos: [TJ's] probably eaten them accidentally. He's got rose petals everywhere, all the time (laughs).