Brother Knows Best

Luke Miller's Eagle Scout Project Helps Little Sister and Other Kids with Down Syndrome at CHKD

On the sunniest day Hampton Roads has seen in a while, Mary Miller is planting pink flowers.

After digging for a few minutes, she brushes her hands, requests a rinse off from her brother, Luke Miller, who is on standby with the hose in hand, and gets back to work.

“Come on! Let’s go!”

The gloveless gardening is new for Mary, who has Down syndrome. Months ago the 10-year-old would have had to have her pink and lavender gardening gloves present to shield her tiny hands from the dirt, and years before that her therapists never would have thought she would enjoy playing in the dirt.

Working in the garden helps kids with Down syndrome in multiple ways, including improving their handwriting skills by writing their names to label their plants and improving physical strength. Since incorporating the gardening into her therapy, Maegan Branton, Mary’s speech pathologist at the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters Health and Surgery Center in Newport News, and Mary’s mom, Billie Miller, say they have seen the biggest improvement in Mary’s speech.

It’s hard for kids with Down syndrome to put complete sentences together, as Branton explains.

From entering the garden, to closing up shop, Branton and occupational therapist Maggie Jarvela are working on Mary’s speech. Every interaction serves as an opportunity to help Mary speak in full sentences. “The keys, please.” “Open the door, please.”

Mary asks Luke to fill up the watering can. Mrs. Miller beams from the sideline as Mary tilts the big green watering can over the flowers. “Uh-oh,” she says when it’s empty.  

“He is just too good of a brother,” Jarvela comments.

Too good is right. The CHKD therapy garden is Luke’s Eagle Scout project, the result of months of hard work by the 16-year-old Kecoughtan High School sophomore. Last year, Luke was in search of community service project ideas. When he and Mrs. Miller asked CHKD for suggestions, they learned the hospital had wanted a therapy garden, and Luke set to work drawing up plans, making presentations to community groups and soliciting funds.

While his peers were enjoying their summer vacation downtime, Luke was raising the $3,500 for the project and collected an additional $1,000 to donate to the hospital for garden maintenance. Memorial Day weekend, Luke, his 15-member Troop 31, his father, Col. Frank Miller and friends of Luke built the garden.

“Now the Virginia Beach hospital wants one too; they’ve gotten kind of jealous,” he smiles.

Surrounded by an eight-foot tall fence, the garden is designed and built for children with many different needs. Flowerbeds are raised at different levels to accommodate children of all ages as well as wheelchairs.

“At first it was really time consuming,” says Luke. “But my parents were very influential, and I knew it was for a good purpose.”

Luke has won numerous awards for the project, including the Phil Everhart Youth Award, and it has even inspired a possible future career. “Now that I’ve seen Mary in action, I like the idea of therapy,” he says.

During the spring and summer, the garden may see up to eight kids of varying ages a day. As the warm weather approaches, CHKD therapists are looking forward to spending more time in the garden and planting a wider variety of plants and vegetables alongside the current pansies, lemon balm, thyme, broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

Luke may be “too good of a big brother,” but like any big brother, he still likes to pester. “Look Mary, a butterfly,” he calls out as he stands beside her in the garden. She scrunches up her face; she’s scared of butterflies. Everyone laughs.