Children’s National Healing Garden to honor first ladies 

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy visiting Children's Hospital in 196(?)

Jacqueline Kennedy visiting patients at Children’s Hospital, 1961 (Source: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library)

First ladies have always had a meaningful relationship to the children, parents, and staff at Children National Health System (formerly Children’s Hospital) in Washington, DC.  In honor of this enduring bond, Children’s National has announced that it will be dedicating a planned healing garden to the first ladies of the United States.

When I served as chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush, I accompanied her on her annual holiday visits to Children’s Hospital.

Mrs. Bush gave the patients a special preview of the popular “Barney Cam”―streaming footage of the first family’s dogs Barney and Miss Beazley as they romped among the White House decorations with tiny cameras mounted on their collars.

Every year, Mrs. Bush also brought Barney to Children’s National. The one year Miss Beazley came along, she was not particularly well behaved, barking loudly during the book reading whenever the children laughed.

Nevertheless, the dogs’ energy and playfulness brought joy to the children and their families. Every visit to Children’s Hospital was meaningful and emotional. We were acutely aware that many of the children were facing grave illnesses and lengthy, grueling treatments.

Laura Bush with Barney and friend at Children's National.

Laura Bush with Barney and friend at Children’s National.

For Mrs. Bush’s final visit as first lady in 2008, our advance person was Heather Florance, a longtime volunteer for our office. She was moved by the experience of advancing this visit and later became deeply involved in the hospital’s foundation, eventually joining its board.

Last spring, the hospital leadership approached the Foundation with a pressing need. They had just confronted an emotional end-of-life experience with an 11-year-old girl whose final wish was simply to go outside after months of hospitalization.

Because of the complicated lifesaving equipment to which she was attached, the process of moving her safely outdoors took a great deal of effort by many hospital staff members. They prepared for the move over the course of several days.

The hospital leaders said they had long wanted to convert an existing gravel rooftop area into a green space as a respite for patients and their families. This 11-year-old girl’s request was the catalyst for moving forward.

Heather and her husband Andy are leading the effort to make this rooftop healing garden a reality. The Florances thought it would be fitting  to dedicate the healing garden in honor of U.S. first ladies, recognizing their longstanding support for the nation’s children and for Children’s National in particular.

When Heather called me about the project and to float the idea of former first ladies becoming co-chairs,  I was sure, from both my experience with Mrs. Bush and my research at American University on the legacies of first ladies and their activism, that they would enthusiastically support this effort.

Heather asked a group of us who had worked in the East Wing to join the Healing Garden planning committee and invited us to the gravel roof to see the inspiring view of Washington. We all felt a personal connection and committed to the project that very day.

Our first task was to reach out to our respective first ladies about co-chairing the effort. It was an easy ask. Every former first lady as well as First Lady Michelle Obama has signed on as an honorary chair for this wonderful project.

Mrs. Obama helped to publicly announce the healing garden on February 9, 2015. “I’ve seen firsthand the strength and bravery of the children and families at Children’s National as they take on incredible challenges,” Mrs. Obama said. “The new healing garden will give children and families a place where they can find peace and comfort, while also contributing to their health.”

Artist sketch of proposed Healing Garden. Source: Children's National.

Artist sketch of proposed Healing Garden. Source: Children’s National.

The Children’s National Health System Healing Garden will be a 7,200 square-foot space with inspiring views of the nation’s capital, featuring elements of art and music as well as greenery, sunlight, and fresh air. The final cost of the project is estimated to be $5.5 million dollars.

Kurt D. Newman, M.D., President and CEO of the hospital, said,  “Children’s National has been honored by our relationship with the first ladies over the years, and their holiday visits have meant so much to children and their families. We are grateful that the first lady and the former first ladies are supporting this important project. It’s a fitting tribute to dedicate this inspiring space to them.”

I am honored to be part of the planning for this healing garden and encourage everyone to learn more about the project and support the initiative by making an online gift.

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