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Veterans and their allies grow a garden community

07.07.16
By: Mark Tarnacki
Salad days crowd

Community garden partners and Saint MIchael's people who gathered by the College's Permaculture site at a recent lunch included, seated with a hat and laughing in center, local garden guru and media figure Charlie Nardozzi; and standing at right in white T-shirt, local Army veteran and garden volunteer Todd Bowling. In photos , descending order, student gardener Erin Buckley goes for greens while in the background left of same photo, Joshua Gerasimof of the local VA is in a green shirt; Edmundite Fr. Mike Cronogue and Brother Michael Carter facing camera, students Buckley and Jess Reed face them; Kristyn Achilich, chief in charge at the garden, holding her son, addresses the group; a bowl of salad.

During this season’s fourth “Salad Days” lunch recently at picnic tables down by the Saint Michael’s permaculture-site gardens and greenhouses, area military veterans and community-garden champions joined College staff and student horticulturists to celebrate the growth of fresh produce and productive community partnerships

Kristyn Achilich ’05, academic program coordinator for the site, says the introduction of between 10 and 15 regular former-military volunteers through the local Veterans Administration to this year’s gardening activities is a winning collaboration.

The regular student/staff garden-tenders are glad for friendly help with planting, weeding and watering as they meet interesting new people who bring the wisdom of rich life experiences; veterans say they enjoy “getting in the dirt” and learning new garden skills from community experts at workshops alongside the students.

Chris Boutin of Milton, a 31-year old Marine Corps veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq and father of 2-year-old twin boys, will be attending Saint Michael’s this fall in the psychology program as a transfer from CCV. His goal is to become a clinical social worker among veterans. He’s been offering rides to other vets from Winooski or Burlington to the site and joining in the work himself. “I think it’s really achieving its goal of education, so people can have a garden at home,” Boutin said, “but also in creating a community and helping reintegrate the veterans. It shows vets that you can have more than just veteran friends, and that there are lots of common interests with people that they might not have known about.”

student serves salad vertical shotBoutin explained how “reintegrating” to civilian society is a central issue for many veterans who grow accustomed to virtually never being alone while serving; then, as civilians, they find themselves feeling relatively isolated as they miss the familiar and supportive camaraderie and common purpose that they experienced in military life.

Three vets working this “Salad Day” took a break from tasks in their designated six raised beds and accompanying 30x30-foot field plot, just after noon on Wednesday, July 6, as close to 40 people laughed, chatted and streamed down the wide path to the garden. The path runs down a slope behind the Observatory and Pomerleau Alumni Center, directly across Route 15 from main campus.

Everyone gathered at four picnic tables in a tree-shaded field beside the garden plots and greenhouse of the fast-expanding permaculture site, with one table a serving station laid out with a big bowl of salad greens and other veggies picked that day in the garden, accompanied by fresh-baked breads and garlic-basil pesto, also made from a recent harvest.

“We’ve been getting more and more coming to these lunches each time,” said Achilich, who was assisted in hosting by two regular summer intern student-gardeners, Erin Buckley, a rising senior environmental science major from Haddam CT, and Jess Reed, an anthropology major rising senior from Bridgewater, MA.  

Among this day’s diners was a cross-section of the Saint Michael’s community – Rev. Michael Cronogue, SSE and Brother Michael Carter ’11 from the Society of Saint Edmund, staff including from Admissions, Academic Support Services, Academic Affairs and Campus Ministry, alongside some of Greater Burlington’s most active gardening promoters, teachers and organizers.Eddies at Salad Days

Visibly delighted by the turnout and high-spirited sociability of the event were Charlie Nardozzi, a local garden guru featured on Vermont Public Radio and WCAX-TV (and the chief educator this summer at the site through workshops he’s been presenting on garden topics); Jessica Hyman from Vermont Community Garden Network, which helps groups get garden projects going and provides education all over the state; and Megan Humphrey, executive director of Burlington’s HANDS agency, which stands for Helping And Nurturing Diverse Seniors.

“Our mission is to get food to older Vermonters and part of it is community gardening,” Humphrey said. A few years ago her agency approached Saint Michael’s for a possible grant from the student-run-and-financed Fix-It-With-Five program, proposing a garden initiative with a special focus on veterans – “something inter-generational involving older and younger veterans gardening together in partnership with Saint Michael’s, Vermont Garden Network and the Veterans Administration,” she said. Though students chose other agencies for funding that year, Joan Wagner, the College’s director of community-engaged learning and coordinator of experiential learning, told them, “let’s make it happen anyway” and it’s been a great partnership since, she said.

Wagner said the thoughtful HANDS proposal made her imagine how the wider Saint Michael’s community might be involved. It was just about the time Achilich took over the gardens, so they talked it over and agreed on the feasibility of offering garden space for such a program. “Last year, we brought together the different organizations, and heard a lot of voices in the conversation, offering what they can,” Wagner said. “It’s been a nice way to offer community interactions to students and faculty or staff and support veterans at the same time.”

Achilich and her babyNardozzi said he already has taught lessons for the vets and students on seeding, transplants, spacing, fertilizing, watering and pests – “the basics” “One benefit is that it not only gets veterans out here learning how to grow some of their own food and eating some healthy food,” Nardozzi said, “but just getting them outside and away from being in the city and in a quiet environment -- It’s a beautiful place for them to come.”

Heather Ellis Lynch, the College’s sustainability director, said the site originally was developed in the early 1980s as the “Hunger Garden” by Fr. John Stankiewicz and other Edmundites who used it to supply local food shelves and needy families or their community with fresh produce. Lynch recalls Fr. Cronogue telling her that story years ago, which “planted those early seeds for redeveloping the site in my head, and look at us now!”  Brother Carter of the Edmundites said that while nobody called upon him to say grace aloud at his table for Salad Days, “I shared communion with the wonderful people here, and that was full of grace.”

Both Boutin and Army veteran Todd Bowling, another of the regular garden volunteers, grew up on dairy farms near Newport, VT, so agriculture is a familiar comfort zone for them, though both say they’ve learned a lot from Nardozzi’s lessons and Saint Michael’s student summer-interns, while also passing on what they already know. “Maybe there’s some little secret I know and some little secret you know, and then we do what’s best for everybody,” said Bowling, a disabled combat veteran from Kosovo and the Balkans war of the 1990s. “It’s fantastic -- we have older guys from the Vietnam era who love to tell their war stories and us younger guys love to tell ours, so we laugh over a bottle of water and then we get back into the dirt.”

Joshua Gerasimo is a peer support specialist at the Burlington VA office off Lakeside Avenue in the GE building, which serves about 5,400 veterans. The College and local gardensalad bowl agencies contacted him about their idea earlier this year.  “I told them I’d try to drum up some veterans, guys and gals, and we got great interest so we decided to go for it and it’s been great ever since,” he said as he enjoyed Wednesday’s Salad Day gathering. Two women volunteers have been among the garden volunteers occasionally too. He and Bowling said a much smaller garden plot is going as well at the Canal Street veterans housing site in Winooski where they apply lessons learned.

Gerasimof served active duty as a paratrooper with the Army 82nd Airborne, also in Kosovo, and worked through some of his own transition issues with VA help after hiking the entire Appalachian Trail and falling in love with Vermont, prompting a move from Ohio (where he also grew up on a farm). “Now with the VA, I help veterans find their own path to recovery,” whether from physical or mental health or substance abuse issues, he said.  “I try to think outside the box and get them engaged with community partners.” Other helpful programs include Vermont Adaptive sailing and biking programs, or working with the Veterans Farm Coalition. “It’s just another tool in the toolbox,” he said of the now successful and growing Saint Michael’s garden enterprise this year. “Every Wednesday is my day to come down -- it’s another non-threatening avenue to make that connection. Instead of seeming nosy or pushy, I can say to a fellow vet, ‘hey, want to go down to the garden and see how things are doing?”

Bowling was pleased to report that “today alone we did some zucchini and basil … we have some peppers that are ready to come out, and we have some tomatoes that are blowing up as we speak. My ultimate goal is to see some growth.”

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