A place to sow, reap and heal

The Healing Grounds garden at the local VA adds to choices for veterans in treatment.

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The Healing Ground was created this year after efforts by Kristan Patterson-Fowler, chief of home and community based service at the VA.

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The Healing Ground garden after development and planting.

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The parcel used for the garden stood fallow prior to the project.

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Clockwise from left, veterans Steve Adkins, Russel Hendrickson and Austin Nisky spend time working in the new garden at the local VA.

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AmeriCorps volunteer Kristen Whittington weeds in the garden

WALLA WALLA -- A newly planted garden offers recovering veterans a chance to escape and heal.

The Healing Ground garden was planted at the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center by the Complementary and Alternative Medicine program staff. The garden is available to veterans in the residential rehabilitation program and the surrounding community.

Whitman College student and AmeriCorps associate Kristen Whittington oversees daily garden care. She spends more than five hours a day, five days a week in the garden. Since the garden's beginning growth, she has delivered more than 20 pounds of squash to a local food bank.

Whittington says she hopes she can help establish a regular volunteer crew to keep the garden healthy when her stay at the hospital ends next month.

Steve Adkins, 28, a former Army mechanic, said he has spent nearly every day of his time in the residential rehabilitation program in the garden with Whittington. Adkins, a self proclaimed Army brat, grew up all over the country and now lives in Dayton.

He was deployed to Iraq in 2005 and said he performed mostly infantry duties while stationed there until 2006. Adkins said he is a voluntary resident in the treatment program. His wife and two daughters, 4 and 8, also live in Dayton and he sees them daily.

Adkins said the garden serves as a stress relief for him. He also said Whittington is good company and it feels good to spend time outside.

"Being in the garden is kind of like having a family and watching it grow. It gives me a sense of pride," Adkins said.

Fellow resident Austin Nisky, also an infantry Iraq War veteran deployed from 2005-2006, agrees that working in the garden is therapeutic. Nisky, 28, is a voluntary resident who is seeking care for alcohol dependency.

"It's nice to go outside for activities. Not a lot of facilities have the options they have here. You don't have to think about anything while you're in the garden, it's my favorite thing to do," Nisky said.

Nisky mentioned the camaraderie felt by the veterans in the program and specifically in the garden.

"No one can understand what you're going through unless they have been through it too, there's no way they could. It's nice to be around people who can relate," he said.

Another benefit of the garden Adkins said, is help coping with his post-traumatic stress disorder: "The garden helps a lot, helps get your mind off things."

Kristan Patterson-Fowler, chief of home- and community based service, said the idea for a community garden came from a trip she made to Kadlec Regional Medical Center in the Tri-Cities. She said the process of getting the garden started came at the beginning of the hospital's fiscal year in October.

After grants she requested were approved, the project gained momentum in late February and early March when the Walla Walla Community College Agriculture Center of Excellence joined the initiative. Students from the center volunteered to build the fence around the garden with materials bought by the VA.

Eva Morales, CAM coordinator, said after one phone call to the center asking for pointers on starting a garden, volunteers came quickly, as did advice on types of produce to plant, how to care for it and when to harvest, as well as specific flowers, such as marigolds, to plant along the perimeter of the garden to help with pests. Patterson-Fowler and Morales said the garden is pesticide free.

The Healing Ground garden and other CAM programs are available to veterans through physician referral. All produce from the garden goes to veterans, their families, and local food banks.

For more information on the Healing Ground contact public affairs officer Linda Wondra at linda.wondra@va.gov.

Jill-Marie Gavin can be reached at jillmariegavin@wwub.com.

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