Phyllis E. Galanti Arboretum is an oasis of healing

For veterans receiving treatment at the McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Va., an 8-acre area of land on the center’s busy campus has been transformed into a growing arboretum. Here, patients, caregivers and members of the community can take a peaceful stroll, or even participate in a yoga class or other therapeutic activity to aid in their healing.

The Phyllis E. Galanti Memorial Arboretum at McGuire was dedicated in September 2016 in honor of Galanti, who died in April 2014. Galanti was a national advocate for American POWs.

Her husband, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Paul Galanti, was shot down over North Vietnam in 1966, and spent 2,432 days in a Vietnamese POW camp. During her husband’s captivity, Phyllis Galanti became active in the National League of Families of Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia.

She gave hundreds of speeches and led a letter-writing campaign that generated hundreds of thousands of letters from Richmond and beyond, urging North Vietnam to release the POWs. Her efforts landed her meetings with President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Just as Galanti was known for her service to others, the arboretum that bears her name is testament to what can be accomplished when different groups come together to try to better their communities.

Healing both people and the land

Plans for an arboretum on the grounds of McGuire date back to a 2009 plan drawn up by the Virginia Department of Forestry. Engineers on the McGuire campus had been looking for ways to boost the facility’s sustainability, specifically through better management of stormwater on a site that includes a lot of paved parking lots. They reached out to the Department of Forestry and came up with the arboretum concept, according to James Dudley, Chief of Engineering Services at McGuire.

Those plans moved toward reality when McGuire officials connected with the Charlottesville-based Green Infrastructure Center (GIC) in 2013. The nonprofit GIC had been mapping the entire city of Richmond’s green infrastructure, and looking for opportunities to turn under-used parcels of land into demonstration projects that could benefit local watersheds.

The GIC took on the arboretum project at McGuire as part of a program called “Healing Our Landscapes: Healing Our Veterans.”

Working under the belief that patients with access to green space heal faster than those without it, GIC, with funding from the Dominion Foundation, involved veterans in the planning and installation of more than 90 trees in the arboretum.

The project promotes healing on many levels. On the medical center’s 123-acre campus, it reduces stormwater runoff into a nearby creek within the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  The arboretum project has also played a therapeutic role for veterans receiving treatment at McGuire.

GIC received a grant in 2015 from the Dominion Foundation, the Virginia Department of Forestry and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay to hire disabled veterans to work on the projects. “The goal was to help both people and nature heal and to help veterans regain their place in the civilian workforce,” states the GIC’s report on the project. Dudley said the program allowed veterans to receive training, work for pay and gain skills they could then use to get jobs out in the community.

Tai chi, yoga and other outdoor therapeutic activities are conducted at the arboretum, which includes a jogging trail and is also open for use by the general public. “We walk out there almost every day and see people from the community using it,” Dudley said. The arboretum is located adjacent to the Richmond Fisher House, which provides free housing to the families of veterans being treated at McGuire.

Community support has made the difference

Gerald Westry, Chief of Voluntary Service at McGuire, said contributions of monetary support and volunteer labor from several community groups made the arboretum possible.

In April 2016, volunteers with Dominion Virginia Power planted several trees, including this American Elm. In May, volunteers with the Virginia Red Cross added 84 plants to the landscape, lining the arboretum path with a variety of plants. A patient at the hospital happened upon the volunteer event and joined in the work.

A local Boy Scout troop installed a pergola, and other groups, including Disabled American Veterans, the American Legion and the Nestle corporation have also made contributions.

“We have really had a diverse group of organizations help out to make this possible,” Westry said.

That volunteerism will continue this month, during the week of National Arbor Day, which is April 28.

On April 26, more than 100 volunteers from Altria Group and the volunteer organization HandsOn Greater Richmond will add spring plants to the arboretum landscape, and will install four state-of-the-art outdoor fitness stations for patients at the hospital to use, all donated by Altria. These volunteers will also paint gazebos and perform other volunteer tasks, and will serve lunch to residents at the Fisher House.

A learning environment

Westry and Dudley said there are plans to make further improvements to the arboretum, and community support is always welcome.

Groups that conduct yoga and tai chi classes have asked if a shaded structure could be added to make the classes more comfortable during hotter times of year. Westry said there are plans for a picnic area that veterans and caregivers can enjoy.

One way to see the arboretum ahead of a visit to McGuire is through its profile page on Plants Map. Many trees in the arboretum bear Plants Map’s interactive plant signs and tags, which allow visitors to learn more about the trees by scanning QR codes on the tags with a smartphone.

“We love the system, and we love the opportunity for it to be a learning environment,” Dudley said.

To learn more, visit follow Phyllis E. Galanti Memorial Arboretum on Plants Map.