Photos by Cindy Barry
Norma Zoner felt like she owed a lot to the Center for Hospice Care Southeast Connecticut. They had cared well for her husband Robert for more than three years before he passed away in 2012. She felt indebted to the organization for care that began long before hospice often gets involved. She wanted to help in some way, but didn’t feel she had the skills that many hospice volunteers possess. Until….she learned about the Healing Garden that was being created at the organization’s Norwich campus. Gardening is her passion and she knew she would have something to offer toward this purposeful endeavor.
“I have always had a garden since I was a child,” said Norma who grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania. “I wanted to learn all I could about plants and I like to see things grow. “
She married Robert Zoner in 1956 and they traveled a lot during his first three years in the United States Army, followed by a career with the United States Coast Guard, where he was stationed at various lighthouses. They moved around the country including assignments in Virginia, Alaska, California and eventually in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. She found a way to garden in each place. In 1971, Robert was transferred to New Haven, Connecticut. With a five year old son, and tired of living in government housing, they decided to buy a house. He didn’t want to live in the city and found his way to rural Lisbon, where he bought a house without Norma even seeing it. It’s the house she still lives in today.
“It was just what I wanted,” she says. “There was a nice level piece of land and he told me I could do a nice garden here. I’ve had one ever since. “
In 1996 Robert encouraged her to take a Master Gardener Program being offered at the University of Connecticut and she enjoyed every minute of it. She received her Master Gardener Certificate. She was a homemaker and loved cooking and canning the vegetables she grew. She was and continues to be active at the Jewett City Baptist Church where she has served on different boards and committees. She also enjoys sewing.
Robert’s health began to decline in 2000, when he experienced a heart attack. He was later diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia, a disease that has many symptoms similar to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. In 2009 Norma was grateful that someone suggested she contact hospice and he was under its care for three years.
“Hospice was so wonderful in telling me what was going on. Volunteers came to give me a break so I could go to church or get groceries. The nurses, caregivers and volunteers were really wonderful people.” But after 55 years of marriage she lost her Robert to the long drawn out disease.
After a time, she thought about volunteering but didn’t know how to get involved. “I didn’t have those kinds of skills. I had just been through a lot. I’m not a very good driver. Robert took me everywhere I wanted to go. But when the opportunity came for the healing garden, I said I really wanted to be a part of that. I have a passion for the land, taking care of the land and for seeing things grow.”
She became involved in making the healing garden a reality, planting shrubs, perennials and herbs, as well as learning about new plants.
“I’m so interested in the fact that the designer, Kelly Sisk, wanted to use only organic fertilizer. It does just as good a job or better, and it’s better for the environment. We used fish and seaweed fertilizer and compost.”
Norma’s contribution was to help get the garden growing so that it could be a warm and inviting place for the community.
“The garden will be such a wonderful place for people to go and sit and meditate. It is a calming place, not just for those who have lost a loved one. It is a place to sit and be quiet and enjoy the beauty of the garden. The caregivers, nurses and volunteers are God’s way of showing His love to people.”
The garden design included areas for wild berry, herb, vegetable, perennial, rose, and Zen gardens. The plan has activity space for children, grass area, trees, a flagpole honoring veterans and four pergolas. Benches are arranged to invite reflection upon a waterfall sculpture.
“Our Healing Garden will engage all the senses in a soothing yet rejuvenating natural sanctuary,” reads the project brochure.
The project began with design and planning in August of 2013 and is the result of a nearly complete $100,000 capital campaign according to vice president of philanthropy, Christie Williams. “There are still naming opportunities left in the garden as well as paver stones available for $100.”
With fund raising an ongoing task, and $92,000 of the $100,000 raised, grand opening events are planned for August 15 and 16. At 8 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 15 there will be a traditional ribbon cutting ceremony. Donors to the garden, members of the board, state and local dignitaries have been invited, and there will be guest speakers and a dedication, a blessing of the garden, and refreshments. On Saturday, Aug. 16 from 10 a.m. – 12 p.m. there will be a community open house with live music, arts and crafts, refreshments and tours of the garden.
The Healing Garden is located at 227 Dunham Street, Norwich, Conn.. For more information visit www.hospicesect.org or call (860)848-5699.