The idea to plant sunflowers along a stretch of Interstate 90 to increase awareness of childhood brain cancers sprouted in early 2014 as a way to remember 7-year-old Maria McNamara, who died of a diffused intrinsic pontine glioma. 
The board of Prayers from Maria Children’s Glioma Cancer Foundation — a nonprofit her parents formed in October 2006 — was discussing mailing sunflower-seed packets to donors so they could grow the group’s logo flower.
Chef Rocco Whalen, a board member, suggested generating media buzz by inviting reporters to watch him and Ed McNamara plant sunflower seeds in the McNamaras’ Avon Lake backyard. McNamara responded that he wasn’t thinking big enough: He proposed planting an entire acre.
Board member Ron Guenther, owner of Avon-based environmental-service provider Chemtron Corp., chimed in. “He goes, ‘Neither one of you are thinking big enough — we should plant a mile along the freeway!’” remembers McNamara, who serves as chief executive officer of Cleveland insurance brokerage firm Armada Risk Partners, as well as the foundation’s president.
That summer Guenther got permission from the Jacobs Group for local farmer John Betzel to plant some 200,000 sunflower seeds the real estate company provided on 4½ acres it owned along the north side of I-90 between Jaycox Road and state Route 83 in Avon. In 2015, Betzel planted almost 2 million seeds on more than 16 acres (a size that required the addition of wheatgrass walking paths) with the company’s blessing. This year, Maria’s Field of Hope expanded to a whopping 50-plus acres — so big that McNamara can’t recall if Betzel planted 7 or 8 million seeds, including stunning Russian Mammoths that can grow 12 feet high. It has become a bona fide tourist attraction, one that draws people from as far away as California, Florida and New Jersey when it bursts with golden blooms during the late-summer weeks.
“They come into it for their own reasons, whether they lost a child or they lost a loved one, whether they just want to be happy and let their children run and play,” McNamara says. “We’ve had music videos done [there]. “We have people asking to do weddings there. We’ve had people take their parents’ ashes there.” Response has been so great that in August the City of Avon adopted the sunflower as its official flower. “The whole community is behind it,” he marvels.
Admission to the field is free. But McNamara says its donation boxes yielded more than $60,000 last year. All donations go to support research on childhood brain cancers. The foundation plans to award $500,000 in grants before the end of this year.
“We’re very blessed that we came up with an idea, and it flourished,” McNamara says.   

Helping Hands 

A number of new amenities sprang up in Maria’s Field of Hope this year. Volunteers sold foundation merchandise from a shed-like shop, while visitors took panoramic pictures from a 16-foot-long “photo-op deck” elevated 5 feet above the ground. Others simply enjoyed viewing the acres of sunflowers from a 20-foot-by-24-foot handicap-accessible observation deck complete with built-in benches and bright-blue canvas sunshade.
The labor and materials to construct the additions were donated by a number of area Lowe’s stores. The Avon Lowe’s store contributed $2,500 to cover the materials needed to make everything but the observation deck. The Bedford Heights, Brooklyn, Elyria and Rocky River  stores pitched in for the rest. — LT