Planting the seed

Mary Mitchell (left) and Betsy Saunders were instrumental in the creation of Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden
For three days in March, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden was a hive of activity – and not just because of the early blooms and unseasonably warm spring temperatures in the 80’s.

StoryCorps, the national oral history project, dropped in for a chat with three dozen friends of the Garden.

The chats – actually recorded interviews with 18 pairs of LGBG volunteers, donors, long-time patrons, and other members of the Garden family -- were a gift from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), which recently recognized Lewis Ginter as one of the top museums in the nation.

Setting up their mobile recording studio in the reading room of the Garden’s library, StoryCorps staff members collected stories about the impact of the Garden on community members, which will be archived at the Library of Congress and -- in the case of one yet-to-be-designated interview -- heard on WCVE Public Radio’s Morning Edition.

Among the interviewees, noted LGBG spokeswoman Beth Monroe, were visitors who praised the Garden’s merits not only as a play-date destination and the “go-to” place to bring out-of-town guests, but also as an educational hub and a refuge for people who are sick and suffering.

Guests who came during a serious illness, said Monroe, were effusive in their descriptions of the Garden as a place “of healing and solace and joy.”

Another regular visitor, whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, takes yoga classes at LGBG and enthused about the Garden’s role in renewing her spirit.

Chris Corsello, a 19-year-old man with autism, also took a turn with the StoryCorps interviewers. With the help of his aide, Lisa Watts, Corsello has been a dedicated volunteer at the Garden, assisting most recently with the tedious task of stripping leaves for a stick sculpture.

“The other volunteers have really embraced him,” said Monroe. “And Chris represented the Garden when we received the IMLS award.”

‘That’s just not right’
Perhaps no one, however, found the StoryCorps visit as gratifying as Betsy Saunders and Mary Mitchell.

Aside from Lewis Ginter and Grace Arents, the property owners who donated the land for the Garden, probably no one was more instrumental in the institution’s founding.

In 1981 – when according to Saunders the Garden site was “just a tree farm for the city” – the two friends joined the Richmond Horticultural Society (RHS).

“Betsy’s friend insisted we join [the Society],” said Mitchell, noting that even though the insistent friend died soon afterwards, the two women had already been hooked.

At an early RHS meeting, they heard how Lewis Ginter had left a plot of land to his niece, Grace Arents, when he died in 1897, and how Arents had converted a building on the site into a convalescent home for sick children from the city. When the convalescent home closed, Arents moved in with her companion, Mary Garland Smith, who acquired the property upon Arents’ death in 1926.

In Arents’ will, it was stipulated that after Smith’s death, the city of Richmond was to develop the property as a botanical garden honoring Lewis Ginter.

Smith lived to the age of 100, dying in 1968, and the city of Richmond took possession of the property. Although city officials apparently considered plans for a botanical garden, nothing had been done in more than a decade -- to the dismay of local horticulturists, botanists, and interested citizens such as Mitchell and Saunders.

“We were very naive,” recalls Mitchell. “We thought wills were always upheld. But this garden was left to the city with money, and the city didn’t want to do [anything].

“The city didn’t want to build a garden in the county.”

Driving home from the meeting, the two friends discussed the idea of getting involved.

“Our children were grown and stable. We liked projects,” recalled Mitchell, ticking off the reasons she and Saunders decided they should join the fight. “And I had just been to the Edinburgh botanical gardens -- similar size, great garden -- and I was thinking of that here.”

But the most powerful motivator, they agreed, was that creating a garden was the right thing to do.

“Grace Arents’ will left land and money; the bank had money accruing interest. And we thought,” recalled Mitchell indignantly, “‘That’s just not right to break that will!’”

‘I think you’ve got a case’
Banding together with other interested RHS members and citizens, Mitchell and Saunders helped form the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Inc.

“It was a cause,” said Mitchell, recalling a memorable meeting held in the unheated, empty Bloemendaal House (Arents’ former residence) in the middle of January. “We were all sitting in overcoats and freezing.” They hired an attorney, who had been a next door neighbor of Saunders.

“He told us,” said Saunders, “I think you’ve got a case.”

“We went to every garden club meeting,” said Mitchell. “We wrote every botanical garden in the world, and they send slides.”

Among the early groups they pitched were the Henrico Historical Society and an informal garden club that met at the home of Sharon Francisco -- a long-time Garden volunteer who was also interviewed for StoryCorps.

For their first fundraising cocktail party, they called 50 people. Nine came.

But Mitchell and Saunders kept chipping away, eventually garnering the support of such key patrons as Lora Robins, for whom the Garden library is named.

In 1984, a settlement was reached, and the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden was chartered by court decree -- more than half a century after Arents’ death. Five years later, the Garden Club of Virginia completed the restoration of the Grace Arents Garden as the first garden site at Lewis Ginter.

Today, the Garden encompasses 60 acres and includes more than a dozen themed gardens, a glass conservatory, a visitors center and an education center. Last year, it became one of only ten libraries and museums in 2011 to receive the prestigious National Medal from IMLS.

Nominated for the award by U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA), LGBG was selected for its Community Kitchen Garden that grows fresh produce for the needy, as well as for its education programs, urban greening and water management initiatives, and contributions to economic development and work-force training.

But as Mitchell and Saunders reminisced following their StoryCorps interview, the conversation focused on the friends they have made in their years at the Garden, rather than on the successes the Garden has achieved.

“We’re proud of the Garden. It’s exceeded expectations,” Mitchell deadpanned, and both women broke into chuckles as she added drolly, “They weren’t too high!”

After all, they noted, it was really that little matter of upholding a will that launched them on their crusade. It was a wrong that cried out to be righted.

“And there was never a doubt in our minds,” said Mitchell, “that we would do it.”
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Business in brief


The Jenkins Foundation has granted The McShin Foundation $25,000 for residential recovery services to serve those with a Substance Use Disorder. The Jenkins Foundation is focused on equitable access to health care services, as well as programs that help reduce risky behaviors and promote safe and healthy environments. The McShin Foundation was founded in 2004 and is Virginia's leading non-profit, full-service Recovery Community Organization (RCO), committed to serving individuals and families in their fight against Substance Use Disorders. > Read more.

Early voting for Democratic nominations in Brookland, 73rd House districts tonight


APR. 24, 11:10 A.M. – Henrico Democrats will hold an early voting session tonight from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in two party caucus elections.

Democrats in the county are selecting a nominee for the Brookland District seat on the Henrico Board of Supervisors and a nominee for the 73rd District seat in the Virginia House of Delegates.

Danny Plaugher, the executive director of Virginians for High Speed Rail, and Courtney Lynch, the founder of the Lead Star leadership development organization, are seeking the Brookland District nomination. > Read more.

Crime Stoppers’ Crime of the Week: April 24, 2017


Crime Stoppers needs your help to identify the suspects who participated in a home invasion and robbery in the City of Richmond.

At approximately 2:33 A.M. April 12, four or five men forced their way through a rear door and into an apartment in the 1100 block of West Grace Street.

According to police, the suspects – one with a long gun and all but one in ski masks – bound the occupants with duct tape and robbed them of several items, including cash, mobile phones and a computer. > Read more.

HCPS named a ‘Best Community for Music Education’ for 18th straight year


For the 18th year in a row, Henrico County Public Schools has been named one of the best communities in America for music education by the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation. The school division has earned the designation in each year the group has given the awards.

The designation is based on a detailed survey of a school division’s commitment to music instruction through funding, staffing of highly qualified teachers, commitment to standards and access to music instruction. The award recognizes the commitment of school administrators, community leaders, teachers and parents who believe in music education and work to ensure that music education accessible to all students.
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A safer way across


A project years in the making is beginning to make life easier for wheelchair-bound residents in Northern Henrico.

The Virginia Department of Transportation is completing a $2-million set of enhancements to the Brook Road corridor in front of St. Joseph's Villa and the Hollybrook Apartments, a community that is home to dozens of disabled residents. > Read more.
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YMCA event will focus on teen mental health


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Villa’s Flagler Housing wins national NAEH award


St. Joseph's Villa’s Flagler Housing & Homeless Services was one of three entities to earn the National Alliance to End Homelessness' Champion of Change Award. The awards were presented Nov. 17 during a ceremony at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

NAEH annually recognizes proven programs and significant achievements in ending child and family homelessness.

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Restaurant Watch


Find out how your favorite dining establishments fared during their most recent inspections by the Virginia Department of Health. > Read more.

 

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The WAY, located at 2 E. Williamsburg Rd. in Sandston, will hold its first Easter Grand Gathering event from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. There will be a yard sale, vendor sale, bake sale, community lunch with hamburgers and hot dogs, music and silent auction. Kid’s activities starting at 11 a.m. include games, bounce house, arts and crafts, Easter egg hunts, face painting and more. Open to the community. Proceeds benefit The WAY. For details, call 737-3300 or search “The WAY” on Facebook. Full text

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