Eastern Oklahoma VA Health Care System
New Garden Therapy Program Fosters Community
For Veterans who suffer from severe and persistent mental illness, the Eastern Oklahoma VA Health Care System offers an outpatient multidisciplinary treatment program called the Psycho-Social Rehabilitation and Recovery Center (PRRC).
PRRC provides individual assessment and curriculum planning, skills training classes, psychoeducational classes, illness management and recovery classes, peer support services, family educational programs and an annual luncheon to honor Veterans.
The program’s mission is to help Veterans reclaim their lives, instill hope, validate strengths, teach life skills, and facilitate community integration in meaningful, self-determined roles.
As part of that mission, the PRRC began a new Horticulture Therapy Group in April to teach Veterans gardening skills and take advantage of the therapeutic benefits of nature.
Semone Thompson, Horticulture Therapy Coordinator and PRRC Social Worker, contacted Asbury Community Garden in Tulsa who allowed the group to build two, 12-foot by 4-foot raised beds on their property.
Each Veteran is given a 24-inch by 24-inch square in the first bed to grow the plants of their choosing to take home.
The second bed is used by the entire group and the Veterans planted a variety of plants such as tomatoes, okra, strawberries, gourmet greens, collard greens, spinach, blue kale, red leaf lettuce, Swiss chard, cucumbers, cantaloupe, watermelon, yellow crookneck squash, cilantro, broccoli and peanuts.
When ripe, the group picks the fresh produce and uses it in the PRRC Cooking Class.
“We harvest from the group bed and integrate it into our cooking classes,” said Thompson. “So they can literally eat the fruits of their labor.”
Army Veteran Stephen Jeffers serves as the group “bed captain” and developed a planting system.
“They have to strategize,” said Thompson. “If I put a tall plant here, will it provide too much shade to an herb?’ Stephen built consensus amongst the group. He planned and laid out the bed. Then he sowed and gave the other Veterans their seeds to sow. He’s been a blessing and an asset to this group.”
Mind & Body Therapy
Since the early 1800s, the mental health profession has used horticulture, or gardening, as a form of mental and physical therapy. During World War I and II, horticulture therapy was used to help combat Veterans rehabilitate injured limbs, improve their minds, and also as a way to help them learn new skills.
“Gardening teaches patience,” said Dr. Alyssa Rippy, a psychologist and the PRRC Coordinator. “You have to wait for the plants to grow and it’s something you have to take care of. It takes concentration. It’s calming and soothing. I think there are so many therapeutic benefits to it.”
Brian Davis, a Persian Gulf Veteran, said gardening has helped him cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“Gardening helps relax me,” said Davis. “It gets us out and gives us something to do. You see the rewards of planting something.”
Vietnam Veteran Susan Ides, who suffered a stroke in 2006 and has underwent rehabilitation at VA, said the Horticulture Therapy Group has helped renew her love for gardening.
“I planted peas, radishes, beets and cucumbers,” said Ides. “I had a successful crop. I’ve always enjoyed gardening. The garden has helped me to reconnect with nature and get back to life and to normal things that I enjoy.”
Facing physical limitations following her stroke, Thompson said the garden has also assisted Ides in her recovery. Each of the beds was built 20 inches from the ground so those with disabilities such as Ides could easily access the plants while sitting.
“I had planned on her having a seat the entire time but she has thoroughly shocked me,” said Thompson. “She’s moving around helping the other Veterans when she’s finished with her bed. Although she can hold on (to the bed), or sit down, she hasn’t needed to. She’s not had any unsteadiness. So physically, I think it’s helped her build her stamina.”
Sense of Belonging
Asbury Community Garden is operated by Global Gardens, a non-profit organization that is dedicated to empowering students and communities through hands-on science education. Global Gardens holds social events at the community garden throughout the year such as bonfires, cooking classes and gardening workshops.
Those who participate in the community garden are also asked to give back. The PRRC group helped the community by keeping the mulch pile clean, and attending the community planning meetings.
“Everybody has to participate in maintaining the community,” said Thompson. “Next year, we have signed up to maintain the fruit trees to keep them pruned and harvest them so the fruit doesn’t lie on the ground.”
When the PRRC group first joined the Global Gardens at Arbury, volunteers helped the staff and Veterans build the raised beds while Global Gardens donated some of the soil.
“These gardens are all about community,” said Symon Hajjar, Global Gardens Director. “Maybe we don’t have any other point of connection, but our food all comes from the same place whether we know it or not. Community grows from the ground up. I love having (the Veterans) meet out there and just brushing shoulders every so often with other people in the community. It’s just a great way to bring us all together I think.”
Helping Veterans connect with others in the community is one of the core missions of the PRRC program.
“Not only are they getting the therapeutic benefit of gardening but they’re getting it in the larger community,” said Rippy. “They’re working with Global Gardens and that helps them to become more integrated members of the community which is our goal.”