In its recent history, the building at 1821 Grand Avenue in West Des Moines has offered the public a quiet, yet strong presence as an art gallery and then as a hospice center that provided end-of-life care.
Now its mission continues in a vibrant and strong vein as Amanda’s House, Center for Grief and Loss. The purpose isn’t new, but the location is. “We were in an office complex, and people could never find us,” says Charlene “Charlie” Kiesling, immediate past executive director and now a volunteer seeing the renovation of the building and its new memorial garden through its completion. “Yes, this is a transformation of a building but also of our organization.”
The grief center, offering ongoing services for children, teens, adults, and families struggling with the death of a loved one, is an outgrowth of the heartfelt passion of JoAnn Zimmerman. She started Amanda the Panda in 1979 with no financial backing. She wanted to serve children who were hurting from grief.
Early on, she focused on children with cancer. Wearing a panda costume, she visited children in their homes, hospitals, and schools in the metro area and around the state. She started a residential summer camp for kids with cancer, Camp-A-Panda. In 1988 the Heart Connection took over the highly successful camp.
Then Zimmerman evolved into serving grieving children and began Camp Amanda in 1982. It is the longest-running camp in the country for grieving children and teens. There’s also an adult camp.
Not only does the organization give to children and families, Kiesling says, but it also has prompted others, such as many local businesses, to give back to the organization to further its mission of providing hope and healing.
“In renovating our new building and creating a peaceful memorial garden, so many have donated time, materials, and services,” she says. She cites Iowa Outdoor Products of Urbandale, which has given $10,000 of in-kind materials and services for the garden. She also recognized RDG Planning and Design of Des Moines and one of its landscape architects, Jessica Fernandez, who designed the site plan as part of a class project in the Greater Des Moines Leadership Class. Other funds came from New York Life Foundation and from a Prairie Meadows Legacy Grant.
“The design details came from a meeting in which joint ideas came together,” Fernandez explains. “We went back to the center with images and ideas, from whimsical to serious. We, of course, wanted the garden to be healing and restorative. But keeping in mind that lots of children would be coming here, too, it has to be fun.” For example, it has a play space and a stage, which can be flexible for various events.
“The whole program touched our hearts at RGD,” the designer says. “We love to help where there’s a need in the community.”
Shane Miller, owner of Iowa Outdoor Products, says, “What the center provides for support to families who are grieving is amazing. People might not always think they need support, but so often they really do. This whole project was just so important to us.” It’s not the first time Miller’s company has given back to memorial projects. Others include the Charles Gabus Memorial Tree Park and Garden in Walker Johnston Park in Urbandale, as well as the 9/11 memorial near an Urbandale fire station.
“Memorial gardens are so meaningful to so many people,” Miller says.
A group from the Woodworkers Association is building a pergola for the garden, and an Eagle Scout, Bradley Day, has designed the front memorial courtyard for the project.
“We were not surprised when people wanted to give back to this project,” Kiesling says. “For us, it has been so humbling to see how generous people have been. There is so much amazing talent in Des Moines.”