This Veterans Day (11/11), consider a visit to the newly restored World War II Memorial at Curtis Arboretum
Mounted near a pond in the local gem of Curtis Arboretum stands a stone memorial established by the Township in 1948 in tribute to Cheltenham residents who gave their lives in service in World War II. The memorial area and tree grove was rededicated in 2008, but the memorial had since become hidden amongst overgrowth.
On Saturday, October 16, members of local community groups – Friends of Curtis Arboretum and Heroic Gardens - worked to restore the area around the memorial, making it once again a welcoming place and honoring those 71 names of the Cheltenham service members who died in World War II.
The impetus for the project started with the Friends of Curtis Arboretum (FOCA), a volunteer group that formed after the adoption of the Curtis Arboretum Management Plan in 2016, to help realize the potential of the historic Curtis Hall and Arboretum. Noting the memorial area could use some TLC, FOCA members worked with the Township Manager and Public Works and made a plan to get vegetation and overgrowth out.
Jim Gorman, member of the Friends of Curtis Arboretum (FOCA), took part in the plan for the memorial’s restoration. The owner of a landscaping company, Gorman designed a simple, formal, respectful planting scheme to accentuate the boulder of the memorial and not block the view of the pond. The plan would involve removing Barberry, now considered an invasive species, and other plants like Hinoki Cyprus that were simply too big for the area. Of course, among the shrubs were also intertwined three types of invasive vines – Wild Grape, Chinese Bittersweet, and Porcelain berry, which would need to be removed at the roots. Clearly, this would not be a one-man job.
Enter: Heroic Gardens, a nonprofit with the mission of helping veterans through land transformation and the healing power of nature. Through a connection with FOCA leader Donna Wray, Heroic Gardens learned of the opportunity to refurbish the memorial and jumped at the chance to join for the project.
Heroic Gardens began its work in 2018 with a project at a group housing unit for female veterans in West Philadelphia. The team of amateur and professional gardeners helps veterans who own property and are at or below 250% of the federal poverty line through gardening projects.
Founder Collie Turner explained that for the veterans helped through the program, making a change on the property can help in the healing process. “We are helping people with their own beautification. I’ve seen the homeowners experience their own transformation in the process – as we work on a property’s exterior appearance, veteran homeowners may start to change their personal appearances, better care for the inside of their homes, and get to know their neighbors.”
Each project they do has its own unique story. Turner speaks passionately about the mission to help both neighborhoods and individuals “using nature to help a person realize their worth, or make a dream come true they didn’t even know they had.” Heroic Gardens welcomes all interested volunteers to sign up for a project with them, but they do have many veterans that get involved. “There’s nothing a vet wouldn’t do for another vet,” Turner said, “and it’s a beautiful thing to watch.” The nonprofit also sees many return volunteers; in fact, everyone who helped at Curtis had participated in prior events.
Gorman said the mission-focused attitude of Heroic Gardens brought a refreshing atmosphere to the project. “They came full force with 14 volunteers for 3-4 hours. We did so much more than the original plan of planting immediately around the memorial. The volunteers charged in, boots in the muck, planting grass plugs and sedges (wetland plants) to stabilize the steep slope to the pond. With all this elbow grease, we were even able to formalize a drainage channel taking off from the road to slow the flow of rainwater and catch the sediment. These volunteers come to do a job and don’t leave until it’s finished.”
In just one day, FOCA and Heroic Gardens volunteers completely revitalized the War Memorial. Gorman explained that now there are Boxwoods flanking the memorial, “to create a contemplative space to direct a passerby’s view toward the boulder.” There are also taller columnar Boxwoods at the corner, and deer- and rabbit-resistant perennials planted in the front for color.
Of the event, Turner said, “It was an absolute honor for us to be able to serve in that capacity, and we’re not finished. Hopefully there will be more opportunities for us to serve veterans in the Cheltenham area. We’re part of that family now.”
That veteran ‘family’ and legacy of service memorialized by that stone still lives on in Cheltenham Township today. Elkins Park Fire Company President and US Coast Guard Veteran Mike Wolk reflected on honoring our veterans: “Though a veteran myself, as was my father (Army), I did not truly understand the incredible importance of our veterans until I became involved with the Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation (MCLEF), an organization that raises money to provide scholarships to the children of fallen Marines. MCLEF fundraising efforts include an annual function called the Gathering of Heroes, through which I have had the honor of meeting, and most importantly, hearing the stories of numerous United States Medal of Honor Recipients. To hear their stories and sit in the presence of true American Heroes is incredibly humbling and enlightening. These veterans were recognized for their heroism, but when telling their stories praise and recognize other veterans. It’s truly a reminder of how important ALL of our veterans are!
“My children are very aware of all veterans and we regularly thank them for their service. We LOVE to frequent Curtis Arboretum, especially the ponds to look for frogs and turtles, and love the WWII Memorial. The work done by FOCA, Heroic Gardens, and the Township made me even more proud to call Cheltenham my home! The stories of the living Medal of Honor recipients shared with me and my children are a minute fraction of the stories our veterans can, and should, share. Memorials such as the WWII Memorial at Curtis Hall are a regular reminder that those stories and heroes should be remembered and honored.”
Gorman, too, felt the impact of the memorial, stating, “It is startling to realize the scale of our nation’s deployment in World War II, and then to go to the memorial and see that a small township like Cheltenham had 71 troops die in that war - it’s really powerful. It was an honor to pay tribute to their sacrifices by unveiling that boulder from its hidden state. The War Memorial boulder at Curtis is an obscured gem, and I hope more people will come to visit and reflect and what these service members did for our sake.”
FOCA, incorporated in 2020, would like to restore Curtis Arboretum to its former glory while also adapting to the way people in the Township like to recreate now. The sprawling 47 acre arboretum is well-loved by many groups of people and used for many purposes. It’s a mainstay in the community, from graduation and prom pictures, to cross country runs, to relaxing with family or friends and enjoying nature. Website: Curtisfriends.net or on Facebook as Friends of Curtis Arboretum.
Heroic Gardens completes projects across the Delaware Valley, and even beyond through their virtual program, Mission Windowsill, helping veterans realize they can grow anything if they have a windowsill. All materials are provided free to vets.
Through caring for and growing their gardens, veterans find pride and confidence and build self-esteem. Veterans working with Heroic Gardens see their stress levels reduce and start to create and give to family members as well. This Veteran’s Day, Heroic Gardens will be partnering with Habitat for Humanity MontDelco on some exterior restoration work in Pottstown.
To get involved with or support this mission, or to nominate a veteran you know for the program, visit heroicgardens.org, or find them on Instagram @heroicgardens.