Five years ago, between the memorials for Vietnam War, Korean War and Merchant Marine veterans in the southwest corner of the VA Portland Health Care System, Vancouver Campus, there was an empty grass field.
It’s no longer there.
The grass has been replaced with a sprawling 1-acre garden — including a greenhouse, picnic tables and raised planter beds — where veterans undergoing treatment at the Vancouver VA campus can spend their time pulling at plants, sorting through seedlings and digging in dirt.
“Even just a simple walk through the garden can be very meaningful and also benefit your health,” Sierra Sampson, program coordinator of VA FARMS, said. “To provide a home and comfortable environment to help them through, I think, is a big part of what we do for our patients and for their families.”
Sampson, a former botanist with the U.S. Forest Service, took over the garden in December, along with Mandi Atkinson, a horticulture therapist who serves as the program’s assistant coordinator.
Together, the duo hosts daily gardening sessions for various groups at the VA hospital, including weekly classes with veterans recovering from substance abuse.
Since Sampson and Atkinson began last winter, they have hosted nearly 500 veterans at the garden, home to dozens of fruits and vegetables, including cauliflowers, artichokes, tomatoes, eggplants, broccoli and various fruit trees.
Some veterans, such as Glen DeWillie, frequently visit and help maintain the garden. DeWillie first volunteered at the beginning of the year, when he helped Atkinson and Sampson build picnic tables and planter boxes.
Now, the 65-year-old U.S. Army veteran visits every week, and has started his own garden at his home in Camas.
“The longer I stayed there, the more I realized it was just as therapeutic for me to listen to other veterans’ stories,” DeWillie said. “And occasionally chime in with my own experiences and try to relate to them and try to help them in their journey to recovery or healing.”
A community asset
VA FARMS started in 2018 as part of a nationwide VA effort to connect veterans with agricultural job training. Several other VA clinics across the country have similar gardens, but Vancouver’s is one of the few that has the garden on-site.
VA employees take advantage by coming to the garden on their lunch breaks, or even working in the garden themselves. Several departments have their own dedicated planter box. The garden has become a strong community asset, according to Sampson and Atkinson.
“Anytime someone comes through, they should walk away with a flower or a vegetable,” Sampson said. “We’ve got people who walk through the garden and snack on the berries. Recently, we’ve had a bunch of kidney transplant people using this as their first walk around campus. This has been really special to be a part of.”
For some veterans, the garden has become a place to gather, trade stories and relate to one another. Sampson said she has seen friendships grow alongside the plants as veterans gain a sense of responsibility to the garden and its well-being.
DeWillie said Sampson and Atkinson have created an inviting space where veterans feel welcome to be themselves. Although neither are veterans, DeWillie said they have a special ability to connect with patients through the garden.
“They’re able to connect with veterans and take them away for a moment, at least, and just kind of calm the noise,” he said.
With a combined 30 years of botany and forest service experience, Atkinson and Sampson share their knowledge and provide valuable job skills to those seeking work in agriculture or park-related fields, the original goal of the program.
In addition to transferable job skills, such as time management and sense of duty, the garden provides real health benefits.
Having an outdoor space where veterans can feel a connection with the natural world is invaluable for patients, said Jason Ryther, recreation therapist at the Portland VA Medical Center.
“Many vets that engage in things like a special horticultural therapy, you will see the need for reduced medication use, as well,” Ryther said. “So sometimes medications can be lower because they’re getting some of these other therapeutic benefits in their system.”
Gardening reduces feelings of anxiety and stress, and can help reduce blood pressure, Ryther said.
The garden can also provide a meaningful outlet for patients in rehabilitation treatment programs. Ryther said veterans in 12-step rehabilitation programs greatly benefit from taking care of plants throughout their recovery.
“Some of that is learning to forgive yourself but also nurture something else,” Ryther said. “And so, a lot of people have a lot of guilt and trauma that they’re working through, and one way to work through that is to have this external thing that you can care for.”
Funding for the five-year pilot program will end later this year, but Atkinson and Sampson said they hope the VA hospital will continue to fund the garden. They hope to expand the garden in the future.
For many veterans, the garden has become an integral part of their VA experience in Vancouver, and Atkinson and Sampson are eager to continue.
“Part of why I wanted to do this job was because I’ve seen veteran professional botanists and it’s been amazing and those have always been my mentors,” Sampson said. “So to give back to that, and I’m from here, this is my community, it’s really special to be a part of.”