Clemson Students Partner With GHS to Revamp Healing Garden

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Seven Clemson University students put their heads — and talents — together this semester to brighten the hospital experience for Greenville Health System patients, particularly those in the children’s hospital.

As part of their Sustainable Landscape Garden Design laboratory class, an interdisciplinary group of agricultural education, architecture and horticulture majors completed a redesign of the GHS Healing Garden on Grove Road in Greenville.

The project isn’t just a classroom exercise. Thanks to funding from Clemson Miracle, the university’s largest student-run nonprofit organization which benefits GHS Children’s Hospital, it will become a reality known as the Clemson Miracle Healing Garden.

The redesign stemmed from two GHS staffers coming to the conclusion the hospital’s healing garden was not welcoming enough for children — some of whom rely on the space as their only outdoor environment.

“It’s a nice little private place to go, but it needed some more things to attract children,” said Sarah Pierce, a child life specialist at GHS for more than 25 years. “But since the children’s hospital is within the adult hospital, we wanted to make sure that it would be pleasing to staff and adult patients that wanted to go out there, as well.”

A family connection led Pierce and pediatric nurse practitioner Carmen Quintero to Clemson horticulture professor Ellen Vincent, who worked with South Carolina Botanical Garden landscape architect Shannon Barrett to design the project. Barrett teaches the studio component of the horticulture 309 class, while Vincent supports the lab with lecture materials.

“Healing gardens and gardens in health care are a very big topic in design right now because we understand that a lot of healing has to happen outside the four medical walls of the hospital building,” Barrett said. “So trying to use landscape to enhance that is really important. And given the size of the garden — about 3,500 square feet — it was a really great beginning space for students to look at and be able to manage.”

Hospital stakeholders challenged students to make the space more inviting and user-friendly and requested such elements as a defined entrance; spaces for animal statuary, water features and other kid-friendly artwork; pathways to accommodate wheelchairs and rolling IV poles; swings or gliders; structures, such as small bridges, arbors and archways; and interesting areas, such as butterfly gardens.

Vincent, who specializes in landscapes and health, said after weeks of preliminary planning, the students were divided into three groups to develop comprehensive site plans for the healing garden.

“The teams were formed to be interdisciplinary so that each team is learning from another because this is a sustainable design class, so that ability to listen to other points of view is very important in this type of a class,” Vincent said.

The students made their first visit to the garden in August, and each team developed a plan that recommended appropriate plant selections, updated site furnishings and hardscape adjustments to improve circulation and seating areas.

“They also went back and took soil tests, and that’s where we saw that the soil had a high pH,” Vincent said. “The existing azaleas weren’t healthy, and that explained that to us. All of that informed their design and they selected plants that could survive in the garden.”

One of the students, Stephen Parris, a senior horticulture major from Landrum, said he has long held an interest in using landscape design to create healing spaces for health care systems.

“Having the opportunity to design a healing garden for a local hospital was a great opportunity,” Parris said. “It was an enlightening experience to work in a team consisting of individuals with different knowledge sets and learning how to complement each other to accomplish our goals.”

Duncan Cashmer, a senior in horticulture from Portland, Oregon, also pointed to the variety of skill sets team members from different majors brought to the project.

“I learned about specific plants that grow well in this climate when there is a very alkaline soil,” he said. “A lot of people plant plants here that only like acidic soil, and this garden presented a challenge because of that.”

While the horticulture majors brought their knowledge of plants to the project, the third member of their team, Blakely Johnson, a junior in agricultural education from Denmark, South Carolina, said the focus on children made it dear to her heart.

“This project really meant a lot to me,” she said, “and I really took it and ran with it because it’s not just something that I enjoyed, but it’s something that’s going to make a difference at the children’s hospital. This garden will give them a place to go, it will be fun for them and it will help their healing process.”

For Matt West, a senior horticulture major from Greenville, the project was an opportunity to gain experience with sustainability.

“I’m considering going into some sort of design, so I saw it as a really good opportunity for practice,” he said, “and to see something that is more real world and applied makes it even better in terms of using it for a portfolio or something like that.”

West was teamed with Richard Johnson, a senior in architecture from Clemson, who said he took the class because he plans to minor in sustainability.

“I also thought it would look really nice in a portfolio and give me another opportunity to get some designs out there and challenge myself,” he said. “Being in the class and collaborating with an interdisciplinary group, we were able to get a bunch of diverse viewpoints and apply those different viewpoints to make a more efficient design overall.”

Ray Castles, a junior in horticulture from Columbia, has experience in the landscaping field, having worked and been around his brother’s Charleston-based company and his uncle’s Columbia-based company.

“I have always been around it, and working in the field since middle school, but this time it was different,” he said. “We had to actually come up with a new idea and draw up plans and then present them. I really thought this was a very creative project and I enjoyed putting it together.”

Castles worked with Ashley Seiderman, a junior in architecture from Charleston, who said the project was her first time working on landscapes and called it “an amazing experience.”

“Everyone in the class had great design ideas and the final proposals we gave to the hospital were all beautiful,” she said. “I can’t wait to see what the healing garden actually looks like when the renovation is complete. The thought that something I helped create is going to be used to brighten a patient’s day is extremely rewarding.”

For funding, Pierce and Quintero turned to Clemson Miracle, which raises money for the GHS Children’s Hospital through an annual dance marathon. Each year, its executive board selects projects to fund.

“They brought it to their board and it was accepted for us to receive partial money,” Pierce said. “In return, they are going to give enough money for us to name it the Clemson Miracle Healing Garden.”

Clemson Miracle internal events director Ashley McMullen, a junior parks, recreation and tourism management major, said the board was excited to support the upgrades to the healing garden.

“We saw the importance that incorporating the outdoors and having a place that families and kids can go while they’re in the hospital for an extended time, where they can get outside, we thought that was something that was really important,” McMullen said. “We talk about filling the ‘dream gap.’ People pay for their treatments and things like that, but what Dance Marathon is really here to do is make sure that these kids can be normal kids in the hospital and have those experiences.”

Clemson will present the students’ concept designs to GHS, which will bring in a landscape design consultant to vet the designs and guide the transition from the students’ three concepts into a singular design that will actually be installed.

“It was an awesome collaboration and it just worked out beautifully between us and Clemson,” said Quintero, a 23-year veteran at GHS. “It just feels like it was meant to be.”

(Written by Steven Bradley, Clemson University Media Relations.)