Veterans And Veggies Flourish At VA Garden
PLAINS TWP. — In the cupholder of his wheelchair, Ron Strauss carried a taste of summer.
It was one you can eat: A tomato, picked from the community garden at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Plains Twp.
“I’m the city boy around here, but I still enjoy gardening,” said Strauss, a 75-year-old U.S. Army veteran from Philadelphia.
The tomato Strauss showed off was one of many the veterans at the center’s nursing home harvest each year, along with other items. Flowers, cucumbers, zucchini, peppers, strawberries and raspberries were some of the plants they grew this year. A fig tree sapling is a recent addition.
Raised beds that be reached in a wheelchair and adaptive gardening equipment make the hobby accessible. Volunteers, like Lyn and Joe Brice, also help manage hard-to-reach spaces.
“My parents were gardeners. I was raised in the garden,” Lyn Brice said. “If I can share it with those guys, it just makes them so happy to have a garden.”
Residents in the community living center, the Veterans Affairs’ name for its nursing homes across the country, take occasional trips away from the facility, but the garden is an easier and faster way to get outside.
Strauss appreciates the chance to get outside, work that keeps the mind and body active and the camaraderie of tending to the shared plots. Plus, you get to eat your work.
The garden is next to the closest doors from the nursing home to the outside. It’s close to the space where many veterans who live at the center gather to relax and chat, and whether they tend to the garden or not, the plants make the space more pleasant.
For the veterans who live at the facility’s community living center, it’s a hobby that gives them hours of enjoyment. They’re frequently telling recreation therapy assistant Maureen Cooper about something that needs to be done in the garden.
“They’re involved in something that they’ve been involved in all of their life,” she said.
The garden began about seven years ago at the request of from the work of a World War II veteran who lived in the facility’s community living center. After he died, the staff and residents took to calling it the “victory garden,” a nod to the gardens that popped up during that war to help people access fresh produce at a time when supplies were stretched thin. The endeavor started small and grew larger year by year.
Many of the residents in the center grew up with gardening.
They told stories of working with family and neighbors to tend to large plots of land that would provide extra food in the aftermath of the Great Depression. To supplement the harvest, farmers dropped off truckloads of produce that were destined for preservation through canning.
The plants are a connection to veterans’ lives before they came to live in the community living center. Rocco Petrillo, an 81-year-old U.S. Army veteran from Berwick, planted the fig tree, like one of his own he had years ago. Some of the marigolds and tomatoes are transplants from the former garden of Bill Hastie, a 99-year-old Army veteran from West Pittston who served in World War II.
Hastie was working in his garden the week before the stroke that led to him living in the community living center. The community garden is a source of continuity from his life before to his life now, said his daughter, Megan Hastie. He goes out for one to two hours nearly every day and enjoys that his neighbors in the center eat what he helps grow.
“You see the guys going out there and cruising around looking for what’s ripe, or family members picking thing on their behalf,” she said. “So I think this is a source of great, great pleasure.”
Before he lived in the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, John Wrazien’s garden provided him with baskets of vegetables and hours of conversation.
In the evenings, he’d relax on his porch with friends. In the mornings, they’d come by for baskets of produce.
“Before I came here, it was a must. You lived off the garden,” said Wrazien, 95 and a U.S. Army veteran.
“This is the best therapy there is,” he said.
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