Making Headway In A Chappaqua Garden

Founders of a foundation for families with children facing brain and spinal cord tumors, Ed and Maya Manley open their hearts—and home—for some Father’s Day fun.



Photography by Todd Shapera

A cheerful ribbon of lemon-yellow marigolds and fiery red begonias are timed to bloom for Family Fun Day.

It’s a garden with a mission. Everything about Edward and Maya Manley’s Chappaqua garden—from the timing of the peonies to the dimensions of the ellipse—is all geared toward Father’s Day. And every Father’s Day, the garden hosts 500 children, their families, performance artists, and volunteers, all connected to the Manleys through the Making Headway Foundation, dedicated to the care, comfort, and cure of children with brain and spinal cord tumors.
 

They call it “crunch time.” Everyone in Chappaqua knows not to bother the Manleys during the weeks prior to the big June event. If you do desperately need them, no doubt you’ll find the couple in the garden, kneeling beside innumerable rainbow-colored flats of marigolds, petunias, begonias, and various other bedding plants, filling every empty crevice of their beds with ribbons of blossoms in the most happy-go-lucky shades available. Or, when the weather is too inclement for digging in, they’ll be calling the clowns to coordinate schedules, checking with the caterer to make sure that the barbecue is on course, and talking with the magician, the juggler, the face-painting team, the balloon artist, and the mime. They’ll be making last minute contacts with the volunteers, the person who oversees the petting zoo, and whoever is in charge of the pony rides. The Manleys have hundreds of duties in early June, but everyone knows where to find them. Eight times out of 10, they’ll be home, sprucing up their three acres, getting ready for the annual Making Headway Family Fun Day. That is, when Maya isn’t volunteering as an art therapist for children in the Hassenfeld Children’s Center, part of New York University Medical Center.

Maya Manley


 

If ever there was a backyard with a purpose, Edward and Maya Manley’s acreage is it, always designed with a certain event in mind. It all began 25 years ago, when the Manleys’ daughter, Cynthia, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Although she had experienced symptoms and sought medical assistance since the age of nine, it wasn’t until she was 14 (when state-of-the-art imaging techniques were newly available) that she was diagnosed and operated on, and underwent therapy. Ever since, Cynthia has been in remission.
 

However, through the process, the Manleys learned more than just how to save their daughter’s life. When they were going through Cynthia’s illness and recovery with her, the Manleys discovered that the medical labyrinth is dizzying and the psychological pressures incredibly daunting. At the time, there was no relief—the Manleys shouldered their heavy burden alone. That’s why the Making Headway Foundation was formed in 1996, “to help other parents who are going through the journey,” Maya explains.
 

Three young partygoers cool off at the peak of the waterfall on the property.

Now, their goal is to ease that strain for other families. Making Headway’s emphasis is on supportive care, making the hospital experience more comfortable and funding projects that the hospital would be unable to fund. Making Headway provides psychological counseling, advocates for the additional educational assistance that children with disabilities are entitled to by law, and organizes support groups for parents, siblings, and survivors. Plus, they fund medical research. Meanwhile, they are both personally involved: Maya works with patients and their families, Edward runs the Making Headway office in downtown Chappaqua.
 

And that’s why they decided to throw a little party at their Chappaqua home. “Many of the children come from the city,” Maya says, “and they don’t have places to play outdoors.” That was 15 years ago, when 100 children and their families were invited to the premiere event. “We were surprised how much the children enjoyed themselves,” Maya says. And thus began what became an annual tradition.

When the event became a raving success, the Manleys wanted to extend their guest list beyond the initial hundred attendees. But that’s where they ran into a stumbling block. Their wooded backyard simply couldn’t accommodate more people. And they wanted to personally host the event rather than seek a public venue. “Every year, we said that the garden was too small,” Ed recalls. So, they finally called in a landscape designing and building firm.

An angel watches over the Manleys’ garden.


 

Actually, their first move was to call an excavator, because not only was their property tangled with trees and brambles, it also had a steep incline that wheelchairs couldn’t possibly grapple. They figured that a little reshuffling of earth was all that was necessary. But when they called Rafael Algarin, principal of Bedford Hills-based Johnsen Landscapes & Pools, to consult about construction, he suggested that they begin by contacting his wife. The Manleys response was, “We can understand why we need you, but we can’t see why we need your wife.” But, to be open-minded, they rang up Jan Johnsen.
 

In the end, Johnsen was the one who designed a space that could comfortably host the Family Fun Day. A landscape architect with a master’s degree in planning, she is steeped with credentials: she’s worked through offices in Japan, Hawaii, New York City, New Orleans, and Vermont, and has taught landscape design at the graduate school at Columbia University. The Manleys couldn’t possibly have enlisted a better-equipped professional to steer their project. But it was more than a professional liaison. Not only did Johnsen and her firm take on and neatly solve all the spatial and artistic facets of the design challenge, but she became one of the most ardent fans of Making Headway.
 

Vaudevillian clown Chip Bryant entertains the crowd under the white-washed archway leading into the garden.

Talk to Jan Johnsen, and she’ll launch into any discussion of the project by describing what she learned about the Manleys while working together. “They’re amazing people,” she says. “They’re almost saints.”
 

The collaboration has continued through the years. The first initiative was to contour the land. “There was no level ground when I came,” Johnsen recalls. She created a gentle slope with a terrace outlined by planting beds and a series of easily traversed soft grass steps leading down to a level green where seating awaits and an arbor provides shelter. And true to its focus, that area is geared toward a very specific moment in time. By Father’s Day, the beds flowing on either side of the steps are billowing with astilbe blossoms and dense with sweet woodruff, nepeta, and variegated dogwood, while the ribbon borders of annuals are also in high prime.
 

Other projects with the party in mind followed. The Manleys installed a pool when Cynthia was first diagnosed. Johnsen added a deck around that pool and contoured the access areas with the gentlest sloping earth for handicapped accessibility. But the contours in grade are not the only undulating elements. Curves are a constant theme in the plantings on the property—and for a reason. Johnsen, who is schooled in feng shui, has noticed that arcs are restful, flowing, and nurture healing. Her most curvaceous creation for the Manleys to date is an ellipse specifically configured to accommodate a 30-by-40-foot tent. With a meditative oval punctuated by a stone sphere for people to pace and unwind, it serves as a mini-track when the party isn’t in gear.

A brother and sister explore the colorful petals of a lollipop tree—a tree that doesn’t bloom for long in the presence of
partygoers with penchants for sweets.


 

All the areas serve as family entertainment and recreational areas at other times of year, and the Manleys seek out their garden throughout the warmer months. But Father’s Day is the garden’s glowing moment, when the peonies are prime and all the annuals peak. And that’s also the interlude when hundreds of delighted children descend on the Chappaqua cul-de-sac, ready for the much-anticipated day of laughter and fun. If the ventriloquist can’t get the kids giggling, then Whacky Wendy with her crazy hat factory is going to start them smiling. And the roving dancers in their elaborate wicker insect costumes invariably have everyone totally entranced.
 

Sometimes kids just need to lounge on a bench beside something big, soft, and billowing, like this ornamental grass.

 

The pool is splashing with playful antics, siblings are always racing around, and manicures are handed out for anyone who wants some “hands-on” attention. Meanwhile, parents who’ve encountered each other distantly in hospital reception rooms have a relaxed venue to strike up a conversation, to share experiences, to gather strength and hope, and maybe even to receive a massage. Meanwhile, the Manleys are all in attendance. Their daughter, Audrey, organizes the event for months in advance. Another daughter, Catherine, flies in from California to be of help. And Cynthia, today in glowing health, greets the guests as they arrive. With the garden strutting its stuff, there’s plenty to see. And given the bevy of vibrant blossoms in the terraces and bordering beds, it’s like sitting in the midst of a bouquet. Not only are the flowerbeds on profile, but the delights extend to the further reaches of the property. For the last two years, everyone in attendance has been invited to amble on down to the newest wrinkle in the Manleys’ backyard.

Pony rides afford small riders a view of the garden as well as a respite from running around from activity to activity.

Johnsen and her firm installed a natural woodland path in the wooded “outback” of the landscape with 8-foot-wide paths specifically for wheelchair access. Periodically during Family Fun Day, narrated nature walks are led through the dappled shade of the wooded garden to admire the glacial outcropping and share the lore of the native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers that have been installed. Sometimes the group pauses to rest at the council ring or squats to feel the waterfall pulsating into their hands. But the biggest draw is the “Presidential Bench,” a wooden swing overlooking the glacial rocks, donated to the Manleys by their Chappaqua neighbors, Bill and Hillary Clinton.
 

Twice, Bill and Hillary have attended the Manleys’ party, but they try to keep a low profile. After all, it’s really about the kids. In fact, everything takes second place to the children on that day. And everyone gets into the spirit, letting the garden—their horticultural host—perform its magic.
 

For more information about the Making Headway Foundation, go to makingheadway.org.
 

Tovah Martin is the author of numerous gardening books, the most recent being The New Terrarium to be published in January 2009 by Clarkson Potter. She lectures frequently and serves as the editorial producer of the PBS television series, “Cultivating Life.”

 

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