Vegetables ready to be planted by the Garden Program.
It was a busy day for Kristyn Achilich and Saint Michael’s College’s Garden Program on Thursday, May 25. The Permaculture garden was filled with about 25 people in association with the Vermont Veterans Gardening Initiative (VGI) including high school students, college student-workers, community members, and, of course, the veterans.
This is the Garden Program’s second year working with local vets in the community. VGI is comprised of programs from the Vermont Community Garden Network, Helping and Nurturing Diverse Seniors, the Veterans’ Affairs, and the Garden Program at Saint Michael’s College. Achilich joined the Garden Program in August 2015 and worked closely with St. Mike’s own Joan Wagner, Director of Community-Engaged Learning, and Heather Lynch, Sustainability Coordinator, to offer space in the garden for local veterans to grow produce.
Saint Michael's College emphasizes the importance of supporting the community through service learning; however veterans and student-veterans are often times a group which need service, yet is overlooked. VGI helps integrate the vets with the civilian community which promotes learning, understanding, and respect between the two groups. Achilich believes that “this gardening opportunity is a great way to help those who gave the ultimate service and sacrifice for their country” and describes last summer’s gardening as an “incredibly successful and joyful” experience. Among the crowd of gardeners was Ken O’Connell, St. Mike’s Coordinator of Student Veteran Services and a veteran himself. O’Connell works to support student veterans, helping them be successful academically and within the community. There are approximately 34 people he is currently working with at Saint Michael's College, 14 of which are active duty members. He is a fan of VGI because it brings different groups of people together over a common activity: gardening. According to O’Connell, gardening is a powerful tool for veterans and a great alternative to traditional methods of therapy. Even if the person has no prior exposure to gardening, it is a hands-on experience where people can share their stories and watch their hard work grow. O’Connell said this gardening project “made the war more real” for him. A lot of the veterans are recent vets, which many people do not realize because of how removed everyday life is from the war in the Middle East. One such person is student-veteran Chris Boutin. He is currently performing summer research with Achilich in the gardens exploring horticulture as a successful method of therapy for veterans. O’Connell hopes that this gardening program expands, getting more of the St. Mike’s community – both civilian students and student-veterans involved.
Word of VGI has spread to some neighboring communities. Students from Big Picture South Burlington joined VGI for the day and helped ready the gardens for planting. BPSB is based on service learning, with this particular group focusing on veterans. They had heard about VGI and wanted to check out the St. Mike’s veterans program because they are in the process of creating their own veteran inspired project as well. Also at the event were Meg Humphrey and Jessica Hyman, the Executive Directors of HANDS (Helping and Nurturing Diverse Seniors) and Vermont Community Garden Network respectively. Together, everyone at the VGI event helped plant approximately 560 lbs. of onions and 1,750 lbs. of potatoes. All of the produce grown at the garden is either sold at the farmer's stand on St. Mike’s campus, or donated to veteran programs. Literally grown from service, the crops continue on to serve members of the local community.