The creation of Cancer Survivors Park, Greenville’s newest and perhaps “most unique” park, in many ways mirrors the journey of those whom it is meant to serve.
There were times when the future looked dark. Times where the path took an unexpected turn. Times when it looked like the dream to create a place for cancer survivors would never come to fruition.
But those were offset by good times. Times when rival high schools — Greenville and J.L. Mann — teamed up during Spirit Week to raise $500,000 for a bridge for the new park. Times when one site didn’t pan out and a new one did. Times when things seemed to just work out and made all of the struggles worth it.
“Hope is the belief there is a possibility out there despite the evidence telling you it’s not,” said Diane Gluck, founder of the Cancer Survivors Park Alliance. “There are moments when it just seems harder than it needs to be. But we believe this park is through us, not by us.”
This weekend, nearly two decades after Gluck’s daughter Kimberly Wallner had the idea for her Christ Church Episcopal School senior project to create a healing garden outside a local cancer treatment center, the Cancer Survivors Park will celebrate its grand opening.
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“That’s the venue from which to tell our story,” Gluck said.
After the weekend’s grand opening activities are done, the alliance will continue to work to transform the 6.8-acre site between Falls Park and Cleveland Park, as well as begin incorporating educational programming into the venue.
“Cancer Survivors Park will be common ground, a place of respite and rejuvenation, inspiration, education, hope, and celebration for anyone touched by cancer,” Gluck said.
Soon after Wallner came up with her senior project idea, Gluck realized something bigger was possible.
“For most of us, the immediate reaction to being told you have cancer is, ‘I’m going to die,’ but cancer can be a chronic disease,” Gluck said. “Cancer survivors parks in very visible locations are signs that cancer is survivable, that it’s not a death sentence. They are really message changers.”
So Gluck and others formed a nonprofit, Patients First, and bought some property on the Eastside for a cancer survivors park in Greenville. But while people thought the park was a great idea, they didn’t think the site was a great one.
The park’s second site was on some property behind the West End Market at the edge of Falls Park where Pedrick’s Garden now sits. Much of the city-owned land was in a ravine. The idea was to build a boardwalk that would connect to nearby Falls Cottage.
A sign went up, but that was the only construction that happened.
“It was a neat plan, but it wasn’t cost effective and it didn’t fit in with some of the long-term plans of the landowners,” Gluck said. “We couldn’t figure out a way to make the miracle happen.”
Finally, more than a dozen years after the original idea emerged, the organization was able to forge agreements with Naturaland Trust and Renewable Water Resources to transform a part of the Swamp Rabbit Trail best known for hairpin turns around a big embankment of kudzu and a metal “cheese grater” bridge that bicyclists and dogs alike feared to cross. Fundraising for the new Cancer Survivors Park began seriously in 2012. Prior to that, it was all a volunteer effort.
But finding a site didn’t end the challenges for CSPA.
“It is an incredibly challenging piece of property,” Gluck said.
Plans were drawn for an 8-foot-wide boardwalk that would weave among all of the native trees greater than 3 inches in diameter because of a conservation easement preventing those trees from being cut down. Rock required drilling for the foundations, essentially doubling what CSPA thought the cost would be, and a bridge was needed to connect the two sides of the boardwalk.
The group was forewarned that the soils underneath the third tier of the Greenville Chamber of Commerce could be toxic. But the group had not expected the half-million-dollar price tag that came with removing it to make way for the park.
When the bridge was installed, the welds did not pass tests and had to be redesigned.
“It was a daily challenge,” she said. “But during times when it seemed impossible, there’d be a sign. Something would happen to show there were angels around us. We have been lifted up so many times.”
Gluck said the result is “the most unique and overthought property in Greenville.”
“Every part has a purpose,” she said.
Daddy on a mission
The park is a place of celebration, a place of remembrance, a place of education, a place of healing.
For Tom Bates, the CSPA board president, the park is a place of faith. His daughter Lindsey Bates Motley was 26 and pregnant when she was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer in 2013. She courageously shared her battle publicly to raise awareness of the disease until her death just two weeks after her 29th birthday.
“During my first opportunity to talk to Lindsey after her diagnosis, I told her, ‘God didn’t do this because if he did, that means he’s a mean God and God is not mean,’” he said. “This is going to be my gospel, my family’s gospel.”
Bates, who has led a campaign that’s raised $300,000 of the $350,000 needed to build Lindsey’s Leap of Faith, a boardwalk landing that overlooks the Reedy, and a sculpture, said the park is like the cancer journey.
“A journey has a beginning, middle, and an end. This park has a place to deal with any part of that journey,” he said.
Park-goers enter at high points, such as the Church Street entrance. From there, they encounter designed low points that give way to reflective spots. Then, there’s a climb to the gathering space and the top of the Celebration Plaza. “It’s a hard, long climb, and it takes a while to get there,” he said.
Bates said he was at the park on Feb. 23, the anniversary of his daughter’s death, and encountered a woman who was at the park reading. They started talking and he told her the story about the park. She told him she had anorexia. “You’ve got to battle,” he said he told her.
“That was a God moment,” Bates said.
Bates said one of Lindsey’s sayings was, “All you can do is the next right thing.” That’s what he’s trying to do now.
“I’m a daddy on a mission,” he said. “That mission is to help people on their journey. I’m channeling a tremendous loss into energy that helps me and helps other people. The park is a big part of that.”
Looking to the future
Even with the grand opening, work on the $9.1 million park, the majority of whose funding is coming from private sources, is not complete.
The Falls Park entrance will get a wider pathway closer to the water, decorative lighting, strategically placed seating, and creative fencing to hide the bridge support. At the Cleveland Park entrance, decorative fencing will camouflage the existing concrete structures under the bridge, and a widened pathway will redirect traffic outward. Design of the Church Street entrance is still pending.
In addition, the area between the NEXT building and the boardwalk will be turned into a butterfly garden, complete with interactive exhibits and informational signage. Native plants will be added around the boardwalk once invasive plants have been removed.
A Founder’s Wall with donor recognition and inspirational messaging will be designed. The CSPA anticipates installation in the fall.
Healing stations will be interspersed throughout the park. They will use inspirational stories, activities, and links to community resources.
And finally, several sculptures are planned, including a survivors bell at the top of the stairs adjacent to the Celebration of Hope Pavilion. One piece will be placed in the park’s healing garden, and another at the Turning Point Plaza. A sculpture jutting out from the Leap of Faith Overlook reflects the trust and ability to move forward that is part of walking with faith. Another sculpture will portray the core message of the park — that nobody should have to go through cancer alone.
There are also plans to “remake” the sewer pipes that run through the park.
But Gluck said the most important upcoming addition to the park is the programming component. Programs will be ongoing to help survivors regain a sense of control of their lives, connect with the resources they need to live beyond cancer, and engage in healthy behaviors to help prevent the disease.
“We’re not going to do anything that somebody else does better,” Gluck said. “We’re going to be the place to bring people together.”
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