Topher Adkins has a story to tell, and the best way he knows how to do it is through his backyard.
Nestled in the heart of Lynchburg, Adkins’ backyard looks more like an oasis, with lush, green plants complementing his hot tub room that could pass as a cabana on a tropical resort. But most of everything you see in his backyard has been repurposed from its original use to build what he calls his “Recycle Garden.”
In his patio area, there’s a baby-changing station that has been flipped upside down and turned into a drink-serving station for when he has company over. He uses old items such as railroad ties, bowling balls, and even wooden pallets as decoration, saving them from sitting in a landfill. Adkins even used bamboo to build the frame a chandelier to light up his hot tub room.
“Rethink-recycle-reuse” are the words plastered on a sign at the entrance of the garden, making known the purpose of the project Adkins has worked so hard to complete.
“It’s about not giving up on things, giving things a second chance, and looking at things from a different perspective,” he said. “Every day is a gift; you need to use it to its fullest.”
Indeed, for Adkins, every day is a gift. On Jan. 11, 2016, he went to the doctor's office for what he thought was a really bad cold. About 48 hours later, after the doctors performed a wide variety of tests, they informed him that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 HPV squamous cell carcinoma in his tonsils, throat, and lymph nodes.
Adkins was given his second chance on June 22, 2016, when he found out he was cancer-free after rounds of chemotherapy, radiation, and several surgeries. But he still battles the effects of it every day.
Cancer impaired his vision, forcing him to stop sewing for his company, AnderAdkin, which made bow ties for men as well as bow ties fashioned as collars for dogs.
His dietary needs have changed, forcing him to consume 20,000 calories per day — mostly in the form of shakes he drinks throughout the day — just to keep up with his fast metabolism, which sped up due to the effects of his cancer treatment. Adkins has to eat every two hours just to fit those 20,000 calories into one day.
But between those meals, he spends much of his time working on his recycle garden, something he sees as an avenue to give other people inspiration with what they are going through.
"He is the strongest and bravest person I know," Adkins' partner Jared Anderson said. "With all he's been through, seeing his creative juices flow has been amazing. His brain and body need a positive disconnect, and this is his space to do it in."
Adkins added, “The garden is just to teach people when you think things are bad, they could get a lot worse. Find the good in everything, no matter how small.” Those are the words he lives by, words that his mother would tell him often.
Adkins started working on the garden in September, using brick that was given to him to build a patio area as the first item in the recycle garden. After that, he worked on gathering enough items to put in the garden, finding things he thought he could give a second life to.
Adkins gets his motivation to keep adding on to his recycle garden through his experience with cancer. “I think that’s why I do what I do,” he said, speaking about the second chance at life he’s been given and wanting to give these items in his garden another purpose.
A lot of the items in the garden have been given by friends or family before they were sent to the landfill. Occasionally, Adkins will find pieces on the side of the road and pick them up to add to the garden.
The piece that gets the most attention of visitors, and what he calls his “pride and joy,” is the hot tub room he installed, which is supported by four two-by-fours, and a roof that is fastened out of a combination of bamboo, tarps, bungee cords, and zip ties.
The inside has been decorated with recycled items to make it look like you're lounging in the tropics. Traveling is one of Adkins’ favorite things to do, and escaping to his hot tub room reminds him of the days he spends seeing the world.
As Adkins stands in his hot tub room, with his Poolside Miami playlist playing in the background, he reminisces on what he calls his “adventure," because he doesn't like using the word "cancer." But he is also looking forward what is next for his recycle garden.
"His strive to reuse and rethink of items into beauty, and create a space that he feels safe and happy in makes me happy," Anderson said.
Adkins added, “I’m still here … I have a second chance. I’m making a difference, but I’m not doing it the way I thought I was supposed to.”
And he isn’t done adding to his recycle garden, or taking care of the environment, either. Adkins feels that it’s part of his job to teach people to respect the earth.
“I try to do it in such a way that educates other people,” Adkins said. “I want to teach people that we need to live off the land again. We need to respect the land and keep things out of the landfill.”