Beauty of Nature: The Caretakers of the Garden at Kavanagh House on 56th Street

EveryStep Hospice's Kavanagh House on 56th Street in Des Moines serves as a comforting place for patients and families living with serious illness. 
While the dedicated employees and volunteers at the hospice house provide patients with around-the-clock care, comfort and support, the facility also serves as a place for families and their loved ones to gather and support each other while surrounded by the beauty of nature. 
For nearly four years, Kavanagh House on 56th Street has been designated as a National Wildlife Federation certified wildlife habitat.
The designation means that because of the organization's landscaping and sustainable gardening, wildlife may find quality habitat, including food, water, cover and places to raise their young.
Maintaining the designation and ensuring that patients and their families have a beautiful scene to take in falls into the caring hands of EveryStep volunteers and the organization's maintenance team.
Deb Milligan and Brian Kramer, both long-time volunteers at Kavanagh House, spend hours each week working on the facility's gardens, pulling weeds, planting flowers, and watering the greenery.
"Out patients and families come out here and can see how pretty and peaceful it is," says Milligan, noting Kavanagh House's expansive back deck area, which overlooks a natural wooded area. Milligan has volunteered with EveryStep for five years and also serves on the organization’s board of directors.
Mixed between the tables and chairs on the facility's back deck are large pots of colorful flowers. Milligan, who plants all of the large pots at the facility, has tried many types of flowers over the years. They aren't always long lasting, thanks in part to squirrels and other hungry wildlife.
This year, though, she says things were a bit different. She picked up "Angel Wing" begonias for the pots. While she says choosing a flower with this name wasn't intentional, the name certainly fits with Kavanagh House’s compassionate mission. 
And the flowers have flourished.
"It was a bit ironic," she says of the flower choice. "But they are doing so well. I think they're supposed to be here. These have done the best I've seen in five years."
Other areas of Kavanagh House's garden continue to thrive this summer, thanks to the green thumbs of Brain Kramer, a 15-year EveryStep Hospice volunteer. 
"I would say I have a part, but it's a team effort," he says. "They are beautiful grounds. It's a daily job from April through October. I'm happy to be a part of that."
Kramer, who volunteers on Saturday afternoons, can often be found weeding the garden, filling the bird feeders stationed outside patient rooms, and tending to any other needs of patients and their families.
"It's whatever the staff needs, and the patients need," he says. "During summer, I spend time in garden - lot of times it's unexciting things like weeding. We tend to do a lot of weeding by hand at the house. You have to get down on your hands and knees and pull weeds."
Over the years, Kramer says he's noticed changes in the garden, with some plants doing better than others.
"There's a saying in gardening, 'if your plants aren't dying, you're not learning,'" he says. "It's that sort of thing, a plant that isn't thriving is teaching you something."
For both Kramer and Milligan, tending to the gardens at Kavanagh House might be hard work, but it's rewarding when they see how much patients enjoy the view.
"I think of the gardens at 56th Street like an extension of the space we create inside," Kramer says. "We try to create comfortable patient rooms, family rooms, and places for families and friends to be in. "I think our outdoor spaces, memorial garden, deck, and play space, each of those are kind of like a room. Most are accessible to patients and all are to families. We encourage them to walk in those, take a break."
Milligan says she's seen countless patients and their family members enjoy the outdoor spaces at Kavanagh House.
"For families and patients, when they are having a bad day, they can come out here and have a little peace," she says. "This is probably the best kept secret in Des Moines. We're doing everything we can to preserve and upkeep the space. You won't find a more peaceful place than this at that point in a person's life."