Duke Wellness Champs: Lesley Stanford Recharges in Sarah P. Duke Gardens

Spending time in nature is a key part of Lesley Stanford’s well-being routine

Lesley Stanford sits in the W.L. Culberson Asiatic Arboretum, one of her favorite spots at Sarah P. Duke Gardens. Photo by Jack Frederick.

This story is part of the Duke Wellness Champs Series.

Lesley Stanford stands near the pond in the W.L. Culberson Asiatic Arboretum, where quiet moments help her stay balanced. Photo by Jack Frederick.

“It was an event,” said Stanford, a clinical dietitian at the Duke Children’s Hospital and Health Center. “My parents would dress us all up and take pictures. Now I come just to think.”

Over the decades — including 34 years working at Duke — Stanford estimates she’s visited Duke Gardens hundreds of times, exploring its wooded and landscaped areas. In a steady routine of visiting at least two times each week now, Stanford has found spending time on the 55-acre space has key benefits for her physical and mental wellness.

“It helps me to be a more balanced person, and I know it makes me a happier person,” Stanford said. “During the week, it’s always a place just to be quiet.”

It’s Stanford’s practice of finding quiet time in a peaceful setting that makes her a Duke Wellness Champ. With our series, Duke Wellness Champs, Working@Duke is spotlighting staff and faculty who take charge of their overall physical, mental, and/or social well-being. Through each person, we hope to inspire and help colleagues in pursuit of wellness goals.

After a 10-minute walk from her office at lunch, Stanford often sits on a favorite bench near the pond in the W.L. Culberson Asiatic Arboretum, an 18-acre collection of plants representing the wealth of floral diversity in Southeast Asia. By slowing down her breathing, listening to the birds and enjoying the flowers and trees all around her, she said she feels re-energized for the rest of the workday.

“We’re busy all day with patients,” Stanford said. “To be able to calm down, listen to your breathing and pay attention to what’s going on around you, it’s rejuvenating.”

Stanford also enjoys walking around the winding paths in the gardens after work. There are five miles of walkways and pathways throughout the gardens. And on Saturday mornings, she returns with her young grandchildren to explore, play and find their own reasons why they love one of Duke University’s jewels. 

Blooming flowers at Sarah P. Duke Gardens. Photo courtesy of University Communications.

Stanford began to think differently about the role the Duke Gardens plays in her life when the gardens closed in March 2020 due to the pandemic. While continuing to see adolescent and pediatric patients daily for their nutritional needs, Stanford found herself longing to spend time in the familiar environment for help processing COVID-19, but she couldn’t. While spending more time outdoors near her home in Hillsborough, she looked forward to a chance to return.

After the gardens reopened to Duke community members by reservation in April 2021, she was among the first people to sign up to visit. Since then, she’s become more intentional about telling colleagues to take advantage of the place too.

“It’s all just wonderful,” she said. “We’re just so lucky to have it as Duke employees, to be able to come over after work, come over on a Saturday or get a quick little break in the middle of your day and come; it’s peaceful.”

Is there an inspiring colleague in your corner of Duke who embraces physical, mental and/or social well-being? Let us know. Write working@duke.edu.

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