“I’d come home from a long day of work, we’d have dinner, grab the kids when they were younger, and come here and walk around for half an hour, an hour and feel the stress just drop right out of you,” he said.
The allure of the peaceful atmosphere that GFS provides for Jerry and his family is what kept them returning time and time again.
“It’s just a very relaxing place to be,” Jerry said. “You can’t be stressed at Grounds for Sculpture, you just can’t.”
The family went to GFS so often they simply decided they might as well work while they were there. After retiring in 2009 after 33 years working for the New Jersey Courts, Jerry began volunteering at GFS in 2010. His wife and daughter were right there with him. Brenda and Jerry are both docents, or educated tour guides, specially trained by GFS. They are a key part of a team that helps GFS handle more than 150,000 visitors anually.
Jerry now puts in more than 100 volunteer hours per year at GFS, and has also picked up a part-time paid work at the park. He facilitates tours on a specialized cart for guests who cannot make the long walk. In addition to that, he leads tours for the visually impaired, called “Touch tours” where the participants can “explore the sculptures with their fingertips.”
Brenda leads tours that specifically focus on GFS’s hortisculpture, the artful placement and positioning of the plant life in relation to the sculpture. Brenda’s love for nature and wildlife started as a child; she grew up on a farm in Gloucester County. Her father grew grains, soybeans and corn. She has showed multiple horses in 4-H fairs and participated in barrel racing at Cowtown Rodeo.
“I loved having horses and my pet French Alpine goats,” she said.
When Brenda isn’t leading a tour, you can probably find her wandering through the park with a sketchpad in hand. She loves taking notes and creating her own art.
Chiavarone, now 30, has been visiting GFS with her parents since she was 6. She is an active volunteer leading “Tots on Tour” where groups of five and six year-olds gather for a story, a craft and then a short tour of the outside park.
“Jillian and I love the kids,” Brenda said. “I get so excited when I have a little school group to give a tour to. Fresh minds, the most precious questions they might ask. I leave it to their interpretation… It’s just a wonderful experience.”
For Chiavarone, it’s the perfect way to use her education—she studied early childhood development education at Mercer County Community College. A Hamilton High School West alumna, Chiavarone has lived in Hamilton her whole life.
The Williamses, meanwhile, have lived in Hamilton for over 30 years now. Brenda has had various careers since graduating with a bachelor’s degree from Rider University and, later, graduate school at The College of New Jersey with a master’s in counseling psychology. Most recently, she held a position at Information Resources, Inc. as a Senior Marketing Research Representative for more than 15 years.
Jerry’s three decades with the court system ended with him as Administrator of Support Service. His responsibilities ranged from emergency management, facilities design and health and safety. It was during these years that GFS became a “home away from home” for the Williams family.
As a guest of GFS, Jerry’s favorite thing to do is just wander through the park and admire the art as well as the plantlife.
“That’s the way it was founded, as a place of exploration,” he said. “You’ll notice there’s no one path that goes through the park.”
For first-time visitors, Jerry has a few tips: come with an open mind, plan to spend the day and walk around until you can’t walk anymore. The family agrees that once you visit, you’ll be back to visit again.
“In my opinion you can’t see all of GFS in a day. It’s a multi-day experience,” Jerry said. “Even as often as I’m here I’m still noticing things, which is one of the fun parts of being connected with Grounds for Sculpture.”
While GFS has its staples, the pieces and exhibits are always changing. Chiavarone insists that it’s impossible to pick a favorite aspect about GFS because there are always new things. The park even changes based on the season. As the weather cools, a warming hut with a gas-powered fireplace becomes a popular spot to visit to warm up, or bring a book with you and relax. The fall and winter also reveal different works of art that may be hidden or tucked away during seasons when foliage is on the trees.
“This is our sanctuary,” Brenda said. “This place seems to attract lovely people.”