Amid the growing mental health crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic, one woman has sought to address the need in her community for a healing space to help those who may be struggling.
In 2020 Johnstown native Lila Samuels laid the groundwork for a creative and safe space dedicated to mental health and suicide awareness called Healing Garden Art Park.
Samuels said the idea for the park came to him in a dream. She had a clear idea of what she wanted the space to look like and immediately started designing her vision.
The park, located at 514 Napoleon St. in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, was purchased at a tax sale.
The site was once an empty gravel lot and is now filled with mulch, flower beds and trestles. The “Gigi” statue will soon be installed as the centerpiece of the park.
The statue, which is the figure of a black woman holding a lantern reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty, will be at the center of a recycled sewer pipe painted with the park’s name.
Samuels dedicates the statue to his late sister, Gladys “Gigi” Elizabeth Turner, who died at age 24.
Having lost several family members to suicide, Samuels is no stranger to the struggles of mental illness. “My only way to heal was to be creative,” she said, “that’s how I care about them.”
She believed the region needed a place where individuals could reach out and have a space where they could heal together.
Samuels plans to install a box full of information and resources to help people find the right care for themselves if they are struggling with their mental health.
Once the park is complete, Samuels plans to hold art classes, drumming sessions, fundraisers and other activities. The art park will be open year-round, but she plans to hold online art classes during cold seasons.
Samuels even talked about the prospect of a Healing Toolkit workshop to provide people with the coping tools they need to deal with grief.
Throughout the process of creating the park, Samuels had the help of his longtime friend, Roger Grayson.
Grayson was a significant contributor to the process of creating the space, and he is a strong believer in the mental health awareness message, he said.
A veteran, he has spent many years advocating for veterans’ rights and believes that this is a group that suffers greatly from unaddressed mental trauma.
“Veterans put on a uniform to protect the United States of America,” he said, “However, many of them return home without shelter, post-traumatic stress disorder, mental disorders, illnesses physical – and this isn’t the America we want to see. It’s time for us to come together as a people…and bring the village back, because it takes a village to make America safer and to make our children’s lives safer.
Grayson has seen the effects of the pandemic on the mental states of young people firsthand with her own grandchildren.
“All this fear and no outlet…Places like this are absolutely necessary for children to come, sit, relax, paint a picture, draw or just socialize,” he said.
When Samuels began planning her designs and collecting materials for the park, she and Grayson tried experimenting with different metals to create a unique easel design. They then came up with the idea of the double trestle wheels which are now featured in the park.
Without the means to physically build the designs, the couple went to different manufacturing companies and asked for their help.
Samuels was shocked by the number of people who wanted to donate their time and resources to the park. “We shared our vision with donors and they believed in us,” she said.
All the scrap has been donated. Organizations were more than happy to contribute to the cause.
The town of Johnstown provided water, mulch and signage; The Johnstown Housing Authority donated a steel fence post; MJ Daniels Manufacturing built the easels out of steel; Nichols Custom Stainless Manufacturing and Lighting Metals donated stainless steel materials for raised beds, Snyder Environmental Services Inc. donated steel wheels; and Eber HVAC did the fabricating and dressing of the flowerbeds.
Samuels plans to repurpose street signs around the city into art installations. They will be reflective and adorned with artwork by Samuels and other local artists.
The art park also had group volunteers from New Day Inc., an after-school and summer program for children, UPJ’S SPARKS, a diversity and inclusion club, and the Greenspace team, dedicated to the creation of open spaces in Johnstown.
Samuels is working to secure more grants and volunteers to help complete the project, which is expected to officially open this year.
“I just want communities to know that artists come together to create this healing tool,” she said, “I’m happy to be a part of it…It’s my way of creating a legacy for heal other people.”
To volunteer or make a donation, Lila Samuels can be contacted at:
Mental Health and Suicide Awareness – Healing Garden Art Park and [email protected]