By: Audrey Knapp
Photos by: Josh Triggs
The Gateway Children’s Garden, an incredible gift to the community, was an idea conceptualized by the local Gateway Garden Club.
Consisting of about 20 women, mostly retired teachers, this Club was inspired by Children’s Gardens they’d seen in other parts of the country.
Sue Ann Palmer, a retired teacher spearheading the initiative, explains the question “Why can’t we have something like this?” was a catalyst for the Club to figure out just what it would take to say, “We do have this.”
The Garden Club pulled from the wealth of its collective experience in education to brainstorm what activities children would enjoy that could incorporate a natural blend of physical activity and learning.
This combination is the central concept throughout the Garden.
The Gateway Garden Club has always supported youth organizations such as the Be-Hive and the Girls & Boys Club, so working on such a large project for area youth just felt natural. Yet, with a project of this size, the Garden Club would need to reach into their networks and out into the community for the support necessary to bring the vision to life.
After securing an area at Ambrose Park for the project, the group sought support for the project’s architectural design. With only a fifth of an acre for project, they had to be very creative about how to maximize space.
Matt Grove, a former third-grade student of Sue Ann’s who is now an architect, readily supported the project with his technical skills. Sue Ann’s husband Mark also lent a hand and collaborated with his skill set as a civil engineer. Together, they decided they needed to go up to make the most of the area; they conceived a mountain, and Matt designed it.
As the Club began stretching outward for support, one of their earliest contributors was the Eastern West Virginia Community Foundation (EWVCF) in the form of a small grant that was used to start the mountain.
The Club also used every technique they could conceive for fundraising to get the mountain built and raise awareness about their project.
“We did flower sales, plant sales, bake sales – everything!” Another major break for the project came from a large amount of in-kind donations from Essroc.
“They donated a tremendous amount of building materials,” Sue Ann says. This donation was especially critical and significantly reduced the amount of fundraising required for construction. Once they allowed private sponsorships, the Club saw a lot of local families sponsoring different areas and features of the mountain in memory of loved ones.
Winning so much support for the project kept hopes up and spirits alive. Often, when things were beginning to look bleak and Club members were experiencing trouble with the project, another break would come through to reaffirm their faith.
“It’s been very encouraging,” Sue Ann emphasizes. “We’ve received a lot of support.”
A second, larger grant from the EWVCF provided the remaining funds needed for the construction of the mountain.
Other organizations generously stepped up to the plate as well. The Shenandoah Potomac Garden donated the the Rotary Club donated the water feature, and the local Orioles Club contributed generous amounts of funding to the project.
Sue Ann was happily astonished by how frequently she found the community ready, willing and eager to contribute to building the Children’s Garden.
She distinctly remembers how touched she was when Progressive Printing co-owner Laura Lowther learned about their project and also committed in-kind donations to the Club’s efforts. “They have provided tremendous support,” she states with gratefulness.
The Berkeley County Council also contributed by offering the services of their employee Adam Rouse (B.S., Architecture.) He brought the designs and concepts to life with 3-D Architectural Rendering. The renders of each area of the mountain were then printed so the Club could fully demonstrate their vision to potential project contributors.
As of the opening ceremony on June 18, 2016, the Gateway Garden Club, which consists of only 20 members, was able to raise $130,000 in monetary contributions and $120,000 in in-kind donations to the Children’s Garden.
“Everybody always asks, ‘Who’s going to maintain it?'” Sue Ann says.
Fortunately, an endowment for that specific purpose has been set up at the EWVCF. Those interested in ensuring the maintenance and longevity of the Children’s Garden can contribute to this fund.
After three and a half long years of planning, fundraising, construction, and bringing the community together for the benefit of our area’s children, the concept has finally come to fruition.
Now, the community has their own Children’s Garden that serves as an outdoor learning center. The focus is on allowing children be active while they learn about overarching concepts such as sustainability, recycling, nature, and, of course, the role of plants and flowers in our world.
“We wanted to provide learning in an outdoor setting where they can be active while they explore and experiment,” Sue Ann says.
One of the activity areas on the mountain includes a large bird’s nest (five and a half feet in diameter) inspired by a much larger one the Garden Club viewed on a field trip to Winterthur Gardens in Delaware. The fairythemed Winterthur Children’s Garden offered a gigantic bird’s nest with matching giant eggs.
The smaller Gateway nest shows children how birds recycle certain items and weave them into their nests. In this activity, the children learn about those concepts while also participating in the physical activity of weaving.
An outdoor pavilion holds a rain barrel to teach about water conservation and features a wall with guttering to demonstrate vertical gardening. Children can water the vertical garden and taste some of the herbs. The area also has an old-style rope well where the children can learn about pulley systems and play with water.
Other areas to engage children in active learning include:
- An area to teach children about the a butterfly’s lifecycles and caterpillars and attract butterflies.
- A “hobbit house” with a big, round door and cylindrical interior to demonstrate echoes, and a green roof for insulation and attracting birds.
- A dinosaur area featuring giant ribs the children can play on and run through, introduces them to paleontology.
- A 16′ watchtower with small windows offers the children a chance to look out over the grounds.
“We’re real pleased with the way it’s turned out,” Sue Ann says. “It’s very unique and very beautiful.” Sue Ann wanted the community to understand that this isn’t a playground; it’s a discovery learning area. There will be attendants on-site to provide access and guide visitors’ discovery through the Garden.
The Garden is ideal for ages 2-11 and suitable for groups from schools and daycares. On alternating days, it will be open to individual families for play and exploration. “Come see it. Take advantage of the mini-camps. We hope schools will use it.” School or daycare groups should arrange their visits in advance with MBC Parks and Recreation.
Sue Ann had one final, important thought to share. “If anyone has something they think the community needs, then don’t wait for somebody else to do it – go after it!”
For more information and the weekly schedule, visit www.mbcparks-rec.org/gatewaygarden-clubs-childrens-garden.