Custer, South Dakota, is a national treasure-of-a-town nestled in the center of the Black Hills — minutes away from Mt. Rushmore and the nearly 1,300 bison that roam Custer State Park. Catering to the bustling crowds of tourists is part of what keeps Custer thriving. But, Custer residents know it’s equally important to care for the health and well-being of the 2,000 people who call this "slice of heaven" home.
Despite its small population, Custer residents have big ideas — and they work together to make them a reality. For example, when the new Regional Hospital opened in 2018, plans were already underway for a robust and thriving outdoor area for gardens to grow, kids to play, and visitors and patients to enjoy.
Custer’s other initiatives include a park honoring local veterans and an in-school nutrition program. These projects, along with many others, helped Custer earn a 2019 Healthy HometownSM Powered by Wellmark Opens New Window Community Award.
Hospital gardens promote healing
Throughout the year, about 200 volunteers and staff care for 300 patients at Custer Regional Hospital. What makes this hospital unique, however, is located just outside the building. The hospital is surrounded by a 10,000-square-foot area known as The Healing Garden and Therapy Walking Path. Staff use break time to walk or pick vegetables. Patients enjoy the scenery from their rooms or in the gardens. Hospital visitors and town residents grab a snack or salad ingredients from one of the five raised-bed gardens.
When the garden opened in May 2019, local children planted asparagus, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and more. In addition to learning how to plant and grow their own food, these same kids brought family and friends back to the gardens on summer weekends to pick from what they planted.
But gardens provide more than fresh produce and the physical activity that's required to tend to them, according to Dr. Joy Falkenburg, the visionary behind the project. “Gardens bring people together," Dr. Falkenburg says. "They promote healing and growth.”
Dr. Falkenburg knows that taking care of patients is more than giving them medications and instructions and sending them on their way. “Studies show that nature has healing properties,” says Dr. Falkenburg. “It decreases the need for pain medications and makes for shorter hospital stays.”
The outdoor space is full of surprises. A walking path with various exercise loops wraps itself around the hospital from the entrance all the way to the hospice unit. Along the way, there are plenty of stops, including a waterfall, a fountain, a playhouse and a large covered patio, which offers shade and seating.
Patients, staff and visitors enjoy picnic lunches. Physical therapy patients do their exercises. There are also food-growing demonstration gardens and sensory gardens for patients with autism. One hospice patient requested that her last breaths be in the garden, surrounded by loved ones.
The community came together to make this garden a reality. Builders, architects, landscapers and private donors contributed time, money, materials and labor.
“The community is embracing this space,” says Colleen Hennessy, a Custer community volunteer. “It’s both eclectic and tranquil. It is a special place that not only feeds us and provides us with opportunities for moving; it also inspires and builds community.”
Pocket park honors area veterans
Custer also showcased the power of community when it finalized plans for a pocket park, or mini-park, to recognize and honor local veterans. Dedicated on Veteran’s Day in November 2018, the Custer Veterans Memorial Park was finished in time for Flag Day in June 2019. It took nearly 1,500 volunteer hours to complete.
Built between two private residences, the park is on a grassy area of unpaved roadway. “It is easily visible when you drive into town,” says Hennessy. “It provides a sort of framework for the town, and it gives the community a place to gather, reflect, learn and be inspired.”
One important feature of the park is the placement of hundreds of memorial bricks. “Each veteran in Custer has a personalized brick,” says Hennessy. The park is complete with benches, flags, lighting and power for a sound system. All of it was donated by contractors or individuals in the community. Even a local Girl Scout troop got involved in building and maintaining the flower beds.
“In Custer, we partner with a lot of people to get things done,” says Hennessy. “The veterans park is a perfect example. While the fundraising took place over several years, when it came time to get it done, the community really rallied to make it happen.”
School program brings nutrition home
While Custer’s parks and gardens provide places for people to gather and reflect, the Custer School District is meeting a long-term goal of teaching area students about healthy eating habits. The idea is to introduce middle school students to different fruits and vegetables, and give them tips to create healthy recipes at home.
“In class, we cover kitchen safety and food preparation, as well as culinary skills like measuring, how to read and follow recipes, plus how to plan and consume well-balanced meals. Most of all, we try a wide variety of different recipes and foods,” says Tiffany Newman, family and consumer sciences teacher at Custer High School.
“The more students are exposed to the world of cooking and nutrition, the more likely they will be to make it part of their life,” she adds. The most rewarding part of her job is when parents comment about the delicious dishes kids are preparing at home.
In the future, Newman hopes to offer classes to younger students in an after-school setting. “This community is so supportive,” she says. “I see so many prospects for the future, such as using more locally-grown produce from school and community gardens.”
What’s next for Custer?
Custer is working on several new initiatives to get people in the community to eat well, move more and feel better. For example, the city is planning safer routes to school with a new bridge that connects the school to area trails, and a school garden may be in the town's future.
What makes Custer different than other communities? Hennessy insists there is nothing particularly special. “We are a small town with limited resources. We just figure out how we can work together. We get everyone around the same table — the school system, the Chamber of Commerce and local groups — you can really get a lot done quickly when everyone is on board.”
“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” she adds. “We just want to keep it moving in the right direction.”
Learn more about Healthy Hometown
The Healthy HometownSM Powered by Wellmark Community Award is an annual award that celebrates the successes of communities in Iowa and South Dakota that are working to make their hometowns healthier, more active places to live. If you want to follow in Custer’s footsteps and make positive changes to your community, check out Healthy Hometown online Opens New Window or email HealthyHometown@Wellmark.com Send Email for more information.