A harvest of fresh vegetables and the VA hospital’s most popular recreational outing
By Ashleigh Bryant
Veterans tend to plants in the Veterans Exploration Garden, harvesting fresh herbs and vegetables they planted earlier in the season, as part of the recreational therapy program through the nearby Loma Linda VA Hospital.
The city of San Bernardino, Calif., isn’t catching many breaks these days. City officials filed for bankruptcy protection in August. The police and fire departments are facing deep budget cuts, and crime continues to rise as employment stagnates. Factors like these spell anything but prosperity for a city’s residents who were already devastated by the housing crash.
But as you travel the streets lined with vacant lots, fast-food chains and boarded-up businesses, one very bright and vibrant parcel of land stands apart. An oasis in the arid landscape, the sprawling plot of earth is dotted with young avocado and citrus trees, grape vines, tomato and pepper plants. Everything here is carefully tended by the hands of volunteers with DAV Chapter 12, patients from the nearby Loma Linda VA Healthcare System and other members of the community.
The land was entrusted to Chapter 12 in late January through a memorandum of understanding with the city. DAV members were to use the plot to create the Veterans’ Exploration Garden, a sort of communal space where veterans could use gardening as a form of therapy. Clearly, it’s grown into something far greater.
“When I became Commander I said, ‘Get ready, we’re about to change speeds,’ said Chapter 12 Commander Richard Valdez. “I wanted to produce something tangible. Now DAV has a presence in the community.”
The result has been a harvest of fresh vegetables and the VA hospital’s most popular recreational outing. They descend upon the space weekly, many struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and a tendency to shut out the outside world.
“This gives me something to look forward to every week,” said Army veteran Mack Reilford, who has been coming to the garden since it opened. “It takes me out of my normal routine, which is mostly a lot of thinking about the past.”
“This is more than just a single project or program for veterans, it’s a terrific model for other communities to implement” said National Headquarters Executive Director Marc Burgess. “It’s bringing veterans in from the hospital, kids in off the street and local residents out into the city. Everyone benefits from this garden.”
“It’s all about partnership,” said San Bernardino Mayor Patrick Morris, who oversaw the site’s adoption by Chapter 12. “That is the driving force behind this project, from grants and supplies from Home Depot to the manpower volunteers have provided. Without partnerships, the garden simply could not exist.”
Angelo Martinez, the site’s full-time, on-site caretaker, is probably one of the garden’s most inspiring features. He received an ‘other than honorable discharge’ from the Army, but found a warm welcome among these veterans.
“I was having problems at home and started coming to the park every day, and I saw this group. One day I asked one of the guys what I could do to help out,” said Martinez. “I came in the next morning and have been here ever since.”
A man in his early twenties, Martinez was going nowhere fast in a high-crime community. “Coming here has completely changed me, from going downhill to going uphill. If it wasn’t for the garden, I’d probably be in a lot more trouble right now,” he said.
The garden serves as a veritable watering pool on the savannah, drawing in people from all walks of life. In addition to the local residents and active DAV members, the garden is breathing life back into veterans who had lost touch with the organization itself.
One local Vietnam veteran explained he had long since abandoned his memberships with veterans service organizations, DAV included, until this gardening project popped up on the scene. “DAV is the only one out here really doing something. It’s what brought me back.”
Though the garden has already yielded a solid bounty of peppers, zucchini and cucumbers, it’s still very much in its infancy. In the months to come, the Chapter will add a greenhouse and a worm farm, and will expand the already robust collection of trees and shrubs. All of the work, of course, is done by the veterans and other community volunteers. For a financially strapped city, one that desperately needs more citizen-driven endeavors, these kinds of partnerships and programs are a bright spot on an otherwise bleak horizon.