Bells, bricks and flowers help locals remember those who have battled cancer.
Jessica Barger and her mother Ramona talked together openly about death. With Ramona battling breast cancer, it was not a topic they could avoid.
“My mom was like, ‘I don’t want a grave, I don’t want that, but I want somewhere that you can go and sit and talk to me,’” Jessica Barger said.
Ramona Barger passed away in April of 2003, but later that same year the Awareness Garden opened, and Ramona’s final wishes were honored.
The Bargers are founding members of the Awareness Garden, a public garden dedicated to people who have battled cancer, their families and their friends.
Located at the beginning of the James River Heritage Trail, the Awareness Garden was founded by Lalla Hancock Sydnor, a local Lynchburg woman battling cancer. Kim Grant, the foundation coordinator for the Awareness Garden, said Sydnor saw a garden dedicated to cancer patients in Virginia Beach and wanted to create something similar in her own town.
“(Sydnor) wanted some place, especially away from the medical side of it, where people could come and have some peace,” Grant said.
With help from friends, family and Lynchburg’s Parks and Recreation, the garden Sydnor dreamed up became a reality in September 2003, according to Grant. Sydnor witnessed the dedication of the garden and cut the ribbon, but she lost her battle with cancer a month later.
The garden features walking paths, plants and trees, benches and a fountain. The central piece is a freestanding bell called “Lalla’s Bell,” named after the founder.
The garden is maintained chiefly by volunteers – most of whom have been affected by cancer in some way.
Sharon Brown, a board member and cancer survivor, said the garden fills a need in the community. Many citizens of Lynchburg have either dealt with cancer themselves or have seen it affect a loved one, and Brown said the garden provides a necessary respite for all those who have dealt with cancer.
“You really need a place of tranquility that you can go to, to just sit and reflect and be thankful or remember your loved one,” Brown said.
People who wish to honor someone are encouraged to purchase a brick in their honor, according to grant, and twice a year the new additions are placed in a brick dedication ceremony. Grant said one of the most difficult parts of her job is going through that grieving process with people.
“It’s very hard to get attached to people and hear their story and then to have to hear that it did not end well or that they lost their battle,” Grant said. “So that’s difficult, but on the flipside, you come to a brick dedication and see a family that’s gathered around a brick and see the comfort that brings them. It’s hard to hear the story but you know they’re coming back here time and time again.”
For Jessica Barger, who is now a member of the board, the stone with her mother’s name on it is her favorite place in the garden. She visits frequently and said nothing brings her more joy than seeing children play in the garden.
“It’s not a cemetery,” Barger said. “It’s a place of solace in an encouraging way.”
The garden itself is a place to mourn and a place to rejoice. Barger said the garden is about more than just cancer: it is about life and growth and joy.
“Whenever the whole family gets together, we go there and that’s just where we’re all together,” Barger said. “It’s not a sad thing at all. It has brought me personally, and I know my family, a lot of comfort.”
The impact of the garden is not limited to its grassy borders. According to the website, the Awareness Garden also provides scholarships to students who have either been personally affected by cancer, or who wish to go into a field that studies cancer. To date, Grant said the garden has given out over $90,000 in scholarships, and over the years the garden has also partnered with E.C. Glass High School to raise money to fund these scholarships.
The garden partners with the school during a football game. Players are sponsored by people who wish to donate to the garden, and the donors can honor their loved ones through their sponsorship, according to Grant.
“The boys love to wear their pink jerseys and their pink socks,” Grant said. “And we’re hoping we can bring that to more schools in the area.”
Aside from the bi-annual brick dedications, the garden also hosts weddings, engagements and prom pictures, according to Grant. Their annual Lighting of the Garden will take place Dec. 5.
Over the past 15 years of its existence, the garden has touched many people’s lives. Jessica Barger can attest to that personally.
“People that have to go through chemo and their caregivers, they’ve had enough of quiet and somber and worry,” Barger said. “So I hope the garden provides people a place where they can go and be happy and live life and find peace… This is a place where life goes on, and just because someone passes away from cancer doesn’t discount the whole rest of their life that came before it.”