Monthly Archives: February 2013

One Woman’s Efforts Lead to Recreational Opportunities for Hispanic Youth

More than 26 years ago, a Fairfax County social services employee named Carmen Fernandez got frustrated. She saw needs. She saw neglected children. She felt the agony of abused children.  She met good people who needed help learning how to be a parent. She saw the painful results of people making mistakes because they just had not been taught about other ways to do things. And to those families she visited as part of her work, she kept repeating the same message:  “I have your name on a list, but there are just not enough support services available.”

Carmen Fernandez

Carmen Fernandez

Amid this dire need for parenting classes Fernandez developed an evening program to strengthen families. She based the new series of classes in Bailey’s Crossroads, and when she retired from her social services position she did not retire from her efforts. She continued to write grants and create new opportunities for low income, diverse populations, and she expanded those efforts further by developing a program called HACAN, Hispanics Against Child Abuse and Neglect.

Because of HACAN, people are learning the practical things they need to know as they enter the wonderful world of someone calling them Mom or Dad.

Because of the HACAN program called Students Training in Advocacy and Responsibility, an immigrant high school student who wants to go to college has someplace to get the guidance she needs to earn a college degree that will turn her life around.

Because of the HACAN program known as Morningstar, a fifth grader about to enter the sea of middle school doesn’t have to enter those waters in isolation. He’ll instead learn how to make positive connections to his community and learn that there are role models who will make his life better. Within Morningstar he’ll find a core group of friends, adult contacts and opportunities that support his aims and goals. He’ll learn there are options, and that he can make better choices regarding academics and social behavior.

Now, Morningstar has come to the parks thanks to some of those role models and adults who are opening the way to those better choices. Grants from the Rotary Club of Bailey’s Crossroads and the Park Foundation are funding a 12-month program that started last September, which provides students with a chance to be part of recreation and exercise at county parks.

The fourth, fifth and sixth-grade Morningstar students usually meet on Saturday mornings at Woodrow Wilson Community Library. Through the new program, some of those meetings take place in parks. The hope was that park field trips would boost Morningstar’s weekly attendance from 15 to 25, and with the support of Bailey’s Elementary School, that goal was met and has been maintained.

That fifth-grade girl about to enter the larger word of middle school now has more opportunities and more choices of value. So far she’s tagged and released Monarch butterflies. She’s played games that Eastern Woodland American Indians played in the 1600s. She’s created pottery, and with four dozen other students she learned air-dry clay bead making. She’s been to Hidden Oaks Nature Center to get close to reptiles and amphibians, and she’s challenged herself in a Zumbatomic class at Providence RECenter. That sixth-grade boy about to choose the friends he’ll bond with through high school will soon be swimming at Cub Run RECenter, playing miniature golf at Jefferson District Park, visiting Burke Lake’s flying disc golf course and train ride, and stomping through Frying Pan Farm Park to milk a cow, meet baby animals and bounce on a hayride.


Suzanne Holland teaches children about reptiles and amphibians at Hidden Oaks Nature Center.

Suzanne Holland teaches children about reptiles and amphibians at Hidden Oaks Nature Center.


Through HACAN, families are getting stronger, and youngsters are seeing how much their community and their world has to offer them. And Carmen Fernandez feels rewarded instead of frustrated.

Written by Suzanne Holland, assistant manager, Hidden Oaks Nature Center

African-American History Month at Sully

Artist Grace Kettell’s Rendition of Godfrey, a runaway slave from Sully

Artist Grace Kettell’s Rendition of Godfrey, a runaway slave from Sully

When Carter G. Woodson established Negro History Week in 1926, he wanted schools and other organizations to study black history.  Since then, this week of recognition has grown to a month. Woodson selected February because within it are the birthdays of two significant Americans associated with black history, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.  Woodson believed that blacks should know their past to be able to intelligently participate in the affairs of our country. [1]

During an interview on 60 Minutes in 2005, actor Morgan Freeman said, “You’re going to relegate my history to a month? I don’t want a black history month. Black history is American history.” 

At Sully Historic Site, we agree with Mr. Freeman. Sully’s history is not just about the Richard Bland Lee family that lived here from 1794 to 1811. It is very much the history of all the land’s occupants. Why should the history of the white owner be considered more important than that of the black slave? When you look back at the very beginnings of the land that would eventually be called Sully, there were nine slaves cultivating tobacco as far back as 1746.  Richard, born in 1761, would inherit 29 slaves upon the death of his father in 1787. Two of those slaves had been at Sully even before Richard was born, such as Eve, as she is listed on an inventory in 1746, who became Old Eave in 1787.

During February and March, our case and house exhibits and tours focus on what the lives of the slaves were like, and they ask, “Who were they?”  What work did they do in the house, the outbuildings or on the farm? What did they wear and eat? Thanks to archaeology that started in the 1980s along the South Road, the remains of three cabins were discovered and remnants of the lives lived in those cabins were found. Animal bones, china shards, redware and even an 1806 coin turned up to help us tell the story of the people that lived in those cabins.

Slaves would have cleaned up after dinners.

Slaves would have cleaned up after the Lee’s dinners.

We could always talk about the slave owner and then mention that, yes, he had slaves, but that is incomplete history. It is often necessary to talk about slaves as a group instead of as individuals because, unfortunately, the same information is not available about them that is available for slave owners. But at Sully, we know their names. From letters, we can learn something about their personalities.  While not having freedom in the way they lived their lives, the slaves had children. They had families. They felt love for one another. Traditions were passed down from one generation to another through activities and stories.  Early African American foodways were passed down and many of the recipes used so many years ago continue to be used today. Religious ceremonies, parties and marriages were a large part of their community activities and were shared between the young and old. Perhaps “Old Dave” or “Prue,” considered too old to work in the fields, were the slaves who tended to the younger children and shared oral traditions and stories so the tales could then be passed down to a younger generation.  The slave community was made up of proud people who lived their lives being owned by others, but somehow, someway, managed to carve out families and personal experiences to enhance their lives. 

So Sully is not Richard Bland Lee and his slaves. It is Lee and Thornton, the cook. It is Madam Juba, a laundress. And it is Ludwell, who ran away and, according to Mrs. Lee, showed the “true proof of the ingratitude of Slavery” because he was “too much indulged.”  Ludwell was returned to Sully, unable to gain his freedom as did Godfrey, another runaway slave from the site.

We tell the story of all the people, remembering their names, families and sharing whatever we know about the person so others will remember they were not just a group of slaves, but individual human beings.  There were more enslaved people living here at Sully than the numbers that comprised the Lee family, and we work very hard to acknowledge them, to remember them and to honor their legacy. 

See the “African-American Past at Sully” case exhibit and house changes through March.  Take home a “Remembering Card” that has the name of a slave and something about them and their important history.

Author Tammy Higgs is a Historian at Sully Historic Site.

Sully Historic Site is open 11 a.m.–3 p.m., through February. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. beginning March 1.  Tours given on the hour.


[1] Carter Godwin Woodson. (2013). NAACP Organization website.  Retrieved 11:30, February 8, 2013 from

Murals Spread Smiles At Providence RECenter

Aquatic Supervisor Ginger Colón's artwork is livens up walls and windows at Providence RECenter,

Aquatic Supervisor Ginger Colón’s artwork is livens up walls and windows at Providence RECenter,

When Providence RECenter Aquatic Supervisor Ginger Colón looks at the walls and windows, she sees blank palettes waiting to be painted. To her, they are a canvas for telling stories, and her imagination goes into overdrive as she ponders the possibilities. Art has been a lifelong passion for Colón, and flat surfaces inside the RECenter provide a unique venue for sharing her creative gifts with people. For over a year, Colón’s colorful murals have brightened up the RECenter and brought joy to countless patrons.

Colón paints coworkers in humorous settings.

Colón paints coworkers in humorous settings.

Colón’s murals change with the season. Currently, visitors to the RECenter are greeted by a large polar bear ice skating with a penguin on a frozen pond. This mural painted on the windows of the staff offices adds a splash of color to the main lobby while obscuring the activities of the people inside. The big, smiling faces of the skating pair are warm and friendly. Patrons looking at the windows next to the skating animals will notice more familiar faces. Staff members ride snowboards, climb mountains, hang from branches, skate on a pond, throw snowballs, dangle from cliffs, and warm up by a fire. Colón created the images by pasting photos of her coworkers’ faces on bodies that she drew. “Staff and customers love it,” she said. “They have all been really good sports.”  

Providence staff engage in a snowball fight.

Providence staff engage in a snowball fight.

In the past, Providence had paid an artist to decorate the RECenter. But when Colón was given permission to try painting last winter, she made the most of her opportunity.  Her first mural was painted on the windows looking out to the sundeck and depicted penguins engaged in a snowball fight.  Each panel told a story, and the patrons had fun with the final scene where a hiding penguin was hit with a snowball. After the success of Colón’s first mural, Manager Patti Stevenson gave her permission to paint the hallway leading to the pool. 

Colón chose to paint an underwater scene. The mural, which is about as tall as a child, extends the full length of the hallway and covers both walls.  Apprehensive children may be soothed by the sight of the familiar clownfish hiding behind the door. Adding to the aquatic atmosphere is a young sea turtle with oversized flippers gliding along the current while his larger parent peeks backward. A school of triangular tropical fish swim in formation, and a dolphin waves hello with its flipper. A timid crab peeks over a rock, and a jellyfish bobs lazily, eyes closed, tentacles dangling, seemingly without a care in the world. Clams open their shells to reveal tiny treasures, and starfish cling to colorful coral. Colón says she loves the surprised reaction of children when they recognize the characters.  “They’re coming for a swimming lesson, maybe their first, and they know it’s a friendly place to be. It truly blesses my heart to make them happy.” 


Colón is a former professional cake decorator.

Colón is a former professional cake decorator.

Growing up in California, Colón always liked painting landscapes and seascapes. It was her way of relaxing. “I get lost in my seascapes,” she said. As a child, Colón drew cartoon figures and portraits of her family and friends. She took art classes in high school and later became a professional cake decorator. She designed cakes for all occasions. When Colón worked in the Fairfax County Public Schools as an instructional assistant, she would make a heart-shaped cake every Valentine’s Day. The cake looked like a box of candy, and the lid read, “Teaching is a work of heart.”  Students who saw her murals outside her fourth-grade classroom would tell her she should be the art teacher. “They always loved to walk by and see the work in progress,” Colón recalls.

It’s not just children who enjoy Colón’s murals. Patrons stop by her office to let her know they appreciate the paintings. “Customers doing water walking tell me how much they relax and love to look at the paintings. It makes them feel so happy,” she said. One patron asked Colón to re-create a polar bear on a piece of wood for a Christmas display in Vienna. “I drew it and she painted it. Things like that are why I love art – making others happy,” she said.

Although it pains her to see her window paintings removed, Colón is always thinking about her next subject. To prepare for a new mural, she takes photos with her phone and sketches the pictures freehand to add her own designs. She also studies window design videos on YouTube. Once the windows have been decorated for Valentine’s Day, Colón will turn her focus to the summer mural. She’s looking forward to painting palm trees and beaches, subjects close to her heart.

Providence staff were painted in a beach scene for Colón's summer mural.

Providence staff were painted in a beach scene for Colón’s summer mural.

The customers enjoy the changing murals, and staff members continue to wonder in what scenes Colón will paint them next. Colón said she loves painting murals so much that she’d do it even if it only paid jelly beans. Summing up why she paints the murals, she said, “Everyone is given gifts, sweet spots, something that is easy to do. So I love to do this because it really brings me so much joy in my heart to share a gift that was given to me from up above.”

Written by Matthew Kaiser, deputy public information officer

A Whiff of Winter Witch Hazel

Subtle fragrance is a calling card for winter walks, and many witch hazels have their name on that card.

We simply call her ‘Jelena.’

Jelena's colorful blooms and subtle fragrance brighten up a winter day.

Jelena’s colorful blooms and subtle fragrance brighten up a winter day. Photo by Brenda Skarphol

We say, “Did you see ‘Jelena’ in the parking lot?” She is beautiful decked out in her copper-colored fringe.  A reliable bloomer and stunning. ‘Jelena’s full name is Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena.’  She’s a hybrid witch hazel whose parents, H. mollis and H. japonica, are of Asian origin. She has greeted visitors to Green Spring Gardens since 1996. However, fragrance is not her thing.

To beguile you with a sweet fragrance, can we entice you to walk west of the site’s Historic House? In the grove nestled between the house and the path to the ponds, you’ll find a fine collection of more than 20 witch hazels. The Chinese witch hazels are among the most fragrant, and here two yellow witch hazels won’t disappoint, H. mollis ‘Early Bright’ and H. mollis ‘Kort’s Yellow.’

Winter Beauty blooms near the historic mansion.

Winter Beauty blooms near the historic mansion. Photo by Brenda Skarphol

Among the witch hazels, the strap-like petals and cup-like calyx both contribute to the color effect. The color ranges include yellows, oranges, reds and purples. The combinations, such as red blending to yellow found in H. intermedia ‘Feuerzauber’ and purple blending to cream found in H. intermedia ‘Strawberries and Cream,’ add intrigue and depth.

'Strawberries and Cream' is a popular variety of witch hazel.

Strawberries and Cream is a popular variety of witch hazel. Photo by Brenda Skarphol

The impetus to develop a strong collection of witch hazels came with our successful application to the American Public Gardens Association’s North American Plant Collections Consortium. Through this project, 65 member gardens focus on a particular group of plants, each site providing a documented repository of plant types for their particular group. We specialize in witch hazels.

H. Intermedia "Feuerzauber"

H. Intermedia ‘Feuerzauber’ Photo by Brenda Skarphol

Our collection started with a gift of six witch hazels from the Chapel Square Garden Club in Annandale. We now have selections from all the Hamamelis species, including the native eastern witch hazel, H. virginiana, the Ozark witch hazel, H. vernalis, and many of their hybrids. Our collection of varieties of the well-known Asian hybrid, H. intermedia, will soon top 100 specimens.

H. virginiana "Harvest Moon"

H. virginiana ‘Harvest Moon’ Photo by Brenda Skarphol

For many of you that regularly strolling the garden in the winter months, you know how the witch hazel beckons, furling and unfurling its petals as the day warms and emitting a come hither fragrance. If it has been a while since you visited, let our witch hazels be the calling card that brings you back to explore.

More than 200 witch hazels beckon you to visit Green Spring Gardens during their peak bloom season, January through March. Green Spring is at 4603 Green Spring Road in Annandale.

Author Mary Olien is the site manager of Green Spring Gardens.

A Walk On A Winter Day At Riverbend Park

Winter leaves

Recently the high temperature at Riverbend Park was 20 degrees. The frigid air and breeze as I walk along the banks of the Potomac remind me that we are still in the grip of winter, and a look around at the dead leaves and barren trees seems to confirm this. All looks withered and frozen and life appears to be on hold. But a closer inspection reveals that much is still going on in the natural world. A winter wren tosses dead leaves under the roots of an old sycamore tree leaning out over the water. A flock of tiny golden-crowned kinglets flits through the branches over my head, seemingly oblivious to my presence as they search for food to sustain their active metabolisms. A brown creeper scours the bark of the sycamore, his feathers ruffled against the cold.

Canada geese on the Potomac RiverOn the river the ever present Canada geese, apparently impervious to the cold water, duck their heads under the surface to scoop up underwater plants, their white rumps providing some relief from the monochromatic winter landscape. The honks and cackles of the geese constantly remind me that I am not the only one braving the cold today. The ring-necked ducks, and coots are grouped together on the far side of the river, and the brilliant white and black male buffleheads whizz by on the current before taking wing and flying back to the flock. A lone black duck paddles towards a small island and two mallards are swept along on the fast moving water. The river is alive with waterfowl and three common mergansers skid to a halt on the water to take their places in the flock, the female’s red head contrasting with the brilliant green of the males.

And what of the plants? A casual glance reveals only dead or frozen vegetation, but look closer and there are the chickweed seedlings, the garlic mustard leaves, and the tiny yellow flower buds of the spicebush, primed to burst forth as soon as spring arrives. The tiny furnaces that are the spikes of the skunk cabbage make their own heat and will even break through the snow to be one of our earliest flowering plants. Underground the spring ephemerals are primed to emerge as soon as the weather turns warmer; the corms of the spring beauty and the trout lily are packed with food to feed the growing leaves and flowers.

Potomac RiverOver this wintry scene the white skeletal shapes of the sycamores form a stunning backdrop to the fast flowing river, most beautiful when viewed at sunset. The branches hanging low over the water are adorned with little bundles of ice, like transparent stalactites. Under the seemingly lifeless branches the gray squirrel hops and digs, constantly searching for those nuts it buried in the fall, and the sentry call of the carolina wren breaks the silence as I make my way towards the visitor center in search of warmth. Finally, an eastern bluebird flits by in search of food. Hopefully he will choose one of our nest boxes in the spring.

Written by Marijke Gate, naturalist, Riverbend Park