When Jeffrey Wise began volunteering at the Coatesville Veterans Affairs Medical Center, his motive was simple: “I just felt like it was something I could do to help.”
Every other Saturday morning for the past couple of years, Wise, Vice President of Finance at Chester County Hospital, has spent two or three hours with the veterans who occupy the hospice at the medical center. Much of the time, he just listens.
“One guy, I’d read to. He liked to hear inspirational Christian stories. Another guy told me about his toy trains. I have an old-fashioned toy trolley that I brought in to show him. Another guy liked golf, so I brought in my antique putter one morning,” Wise says. “They’re humble, reserved guys, so they don’t come right out and say it, but I have a feeling they appreciate me being there. They’re happy to have someone to engage them.”
More than a few of the veterans mentioned to Wise that they enjoyed watching the birds and butterflies through their windows. Gradually, an idea to create a therapeutic garden that would sit just outside the hospice and be visible from many of those windows began to take root in Wise’s mind.
Learning on the job
With help of a Penn Medicine CAREs Grant, over the course of nine hours on Memorial Day, under a sunny, virtually cloudless sky, Wise installed the therapeutic garden at the medical center with help from Diana Walker, senior marketing specialist at Penn Medicine Chester County Hospital, and friend Tex Rochester.
“I designed it myself. But there weren’t any blueprints, or anything like that. I had it in my head,” says Wise, who admits to having limited gardening knowledge before he began the planning. “All I really knew about plants is that they look nice.”
But he knew enough to ask Ford’s Greenhouses, in Coatesville, for perennials (to limit maintenance) and plants that are known to attract birds and butterflies. They did, however, suggest he temper his ambition a bit. With the amount he wanted to plant, the garden would almost certainly be overrun once everything fully matured next spring. (Both Ford and A-1 Mulch, also of Coatesville, provided the plants and materials at discounted prices.)
The dry-stacked retaining wall that runs around the perimeter of the garden was another challenge. “I knew exactly how I wanted it to look, but that was something else I’d never done before,” Wise says. The end result belies the literal blood and sweat that went into it. When a forklift unloaded the slate, stacked four feet high on a pallet, the chicken wire that encased it broke apart. Later in the day, as Wise was surveying the garden-in-progress, his shoe became ensnared in the chicken wire and caused him to fall, hard, on the scattered slate. He was bruised and cut and a little stunned, but after a few minutes, he got back to work.
Tracing the butterfly’s path
The therapeutic garden sits just off the cement patio outside the hospice, on a slight slope that was previously just a large, empty expanse of lawn. Wise wanted it to have some dimension so that someone viewing it from a wheelchair would be able to see it all.
Cast in the shape of a semicircle, the garden measures several feet wide and several feet tall. On either side of the arc sits an antique sundial – made of sculpted stone and weighed nearly 100 pounds – and a birdbath, both of which Wise personally donated. Wise painted the two birds that sit on the edge of the bronze birdbath red, white, and blue. He’s also handling the garden’s upkeep.
Since its completion, the nurses have told Wise they love having the garden, and veterans and their families have thanked him for building it.
When Wise made himself available to the medical center, a call was put out to all of the departments: Who needs his help? The hospice was the first to respond. What he has been able to offer the patients there, though, is a pleasant distraction. Which is his modest hope for the garden, too.