New Gardens Raise Vets' Spirits at VA Medical Center

Robert J Steiner, USN Veteran

Photos courtesy of Dwayne Rider, Public Affairs Officer, VA Central Iowa Health Care System

Gardening is cheaper than therapy and you get tomatoes. -- Author Unknown

A garden requires patient labor and attention. Plants do not grow merely to satisfy ambitions or to fulfill good intentions. They thrive because someone expended effort on them. - Liberty Hyde Bailey

The view outside the cafeterias at the Community Living Center at the Des Moines VA Medical Center is a little nicer to look at these days. Dozens of new flowers and vegetables are blossoming thanks to the hard work of a few dedicated veterans and a donation from the American Red Cross serving Greater Iowa.

The garden project was not unlike the plants now living within its walls. It took patience, time and care and it started long before the ground began to thaw. In January, Red Cross volunteers teamed up with the recreational therapists at the VA Medical Center on a unique Service to Armed Forces project. The group decided to plant gardens outside the second and third floor cafeterias at the Community Living Center. It took several months and a Department of Defense grant to pay for the project, but nearly six months later those volunteers were ready to work.

In June, the team headed to a Des Moines area home and garden store with $2,000 to purchase everything from planters and pots to mountains of soil and Miracle Gro. The Red Cross volunteers even supplied special ergonomic tools for those who needed them. The veterans then took it from there planting their gardens of flowers and vegetables.

What makes the garden project unique from other Service to Armed Forces projects is that it has become part of daily life at the center. The gardens provide the residents a real opportunity to get their hands dirty, tilling the soil and watering the plants. Long time Red Cross volunteer Jim Braswell is very involved with Service to Armed Forces in Iowa. “I’m happy it got the vets involved” Braswell said, “Sometimes we forget about the Community Living Center. It’s nice to get over here.”

For Jim Jorgensen, the third floor gardener, the plants have been an invaluable part of his recovery. The road back has been a long one since he suffered a stroke in late April, but tending to the garden has helped tremendously. Jorgensen’s wife credits the garden with keeping his mind and body active during his recovery. She said, “My grandmother always told me working with soil is very healing.” Certainly in Jorgensen’s case that statement seems to be true. Jorgensen went home on July 15 passing the torch on to a new gardener, David Corwin, with the hope that it brings him the same happiness.

The gardens’ caretakers aren’t the only ones who benefit from their beauty. Corwin said it’s a bonus to have something nice to look at while you eat. “I’ve talked to people and they tell me it is so much nicer than what was there before.” Recreational therapist, Joyce Ellen, recalled when a veteran, who is nearly blind, picked a snap pea, “He was so excited,” Ellen said. “He couldn’t see it, but he could feel the sensation of the plant in his hands.” Ellen often sees veterans and their loved ones enjoying their breakfast or lunches outside, and she watches farmers, now living away from the land they loved so much, just wanting to touch the soil or be amongst the greenery.

That’s certainly the case for second floor gardener, Robert Steiner. The World War II vet and Pearl Harbor survivor diligently tends to the flowers and veggies daily. His daughter Pam Smithson of Des Moines said her father loves plants. “He had a huge yard at home,” Smithson said, “He’s always had plants so when he found out he could do this, he said ‘they’re so good to me here!’” The garden is also an opportunity for Steiner to share his knowledge with other residents and the staff. He often offers tips on how to grow the perfect tomatoes and has asked for more colorful flowers for the garden.

The Department of Defense grant also provided $2,000 for other therapeutic projects, including leather for those who like make things. It also helped purchase bus passes and token, clothing and alarm clocks for vets interviewing for new jobs.

Each year, the American Red Cross provides assistance to more than 2 million service members and many of our nation’s 24 million veterans. We support military families, military and veterans hospitals and provide emergency communications across the globe.