WHO IT HELPS
Twice a week, a handful of dedicated veterans work the soil, water the plants (the garden does not have an irrigation system), harvest fruits and vegetables, and man the composters. One of those veterans, John Steffen, was cranking the composter as Dr. Ames and I strolled onto the grounds.
A Los Angeles native, Steffen’s parents had been Iowan farmers, and he said he tried to apply what he’d learned from them growing up to the plants. Another L.A. native veteran, Alton Tremble, was raised in the projects and had never gardened before he’d stepped into the center’s plot. When asked what he liked most about gardening, Tremble replied enthusiastically: “The yellow crookneck squash. Fresh air. Getting dirty. Fixing things. Harvesting plants after they grow. We’re growing blueberries and raspberries. Berries grow slow so we’ve got to be patient and wait until we can pick them.”
So yes, he likes to garden now.
Another gardening veteran was away that afternoon. After dealing with schizophrenia for decades, he’d recently made a breakthrough. “He was on the streets drinking for five years,” Dr. Ames said. “Now he’s in college.”
Technically, the veterans’ bi-weekly gardening is considered horticultural therapy, an endeavor Dr. Ames has pioneered at the L.A. PRCC, but she admits that it takes a village. Lewis Vinocchio, a Vietnam veteran and Peer Support Specialist, oversees the horticultural sessions. “I grew up in Connecticut and my parents were Italian. Their garden would’ve made Martha Stewart jealous,” he said. Other members of the team include a nurse, a psychologist, a chaplain, social workers, recreational therapists, and occupational therapists.