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Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System

 

Gardening for health

Veterans DeAnn Johnson and Joseph Collins water the new garden project at the Mental Health clinic in New Orleans.

Veterans DeAnn Johnson and Joseph Collins water the new garden project at the Mental Health clinic in New Orleans. Photo by Debra Ceaser-Winbush

By Debra Ceaser-Winbush
Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Gardening is a hobby that many people share. It is also therapy, said Carly Leblanc, a social worker at the New Orleans VA Mental Health clinic.

“Dr. Benjamin Rush, the father of American psychiatry, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, said that garden settings brought therapeutic effects for people with mental illness,” she said.

LeBlanc also said the American Horticulture Therapy Association used gardening as therapy for returning World War II Veterans as it showed a positive effect on mental and physical health.

The Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System’s therapeutic garden in New Orleans and the St. John Community Based Outpatient Clinic garden are two gardening projects that came about with donated funds through SLVHCS’s Voluntary Service.

“The garden project at the Mental Health Clinic offers benefits in mental and emotional health,” said Leblanc, who leads a psychosocial recovery program five days a week for Veterans with a severe mental health diagnosis.

“In addition to offering a sense of purpose, the gardening project is an opportunity for me to feel grounded by the soothing sounds of being outdoors,” said Veteran Joseph Collins. “I like to think it’s the calming medicine of the elements. It slows my mind down.”

The psychosocial recovery group is using raised beds to grow the garden so it can accommodate all Veterans, including those with limited mobility.

The group members ordered supplies, helped construct the planters, selected what to plant and planted the plants.

“The project is helping with responsibility, staying engaged and getting the Veterans to motivate each other,” Leblanc said. “It is an alternative therapy from talk therapy; this is a different approach.

“I’m super excited about the program; it’s been a lot of fun for me,” Leblanc continued. “I’m learning from the Veterans. This is new territory for me — it’s not my area of expertise, so I encourage them to share their thoughts and knowledge about where we need to go and what we need to do. It’s been very empowering for them to teach each other and rewarding for me to see them benefit from the project.”

The St. John CBOC garden is also designed to help Veterans but staff members are enjoying it too, said Brandi Abate-Keys, secretary at the St. John clinic.

This year is the second year of planting, she said.

It began in the spring of 2013, when a group of Bank of America employees attending a conference in New Orleans were looking for a community service project. When they heard about the St. John garden project, they found their mission.

“I had been discussing the possibility of volunteers starting a garden at the St. John clinic in the fall with the clinic staff, but to help accommodate Bank of America, we sped up the timeline on the project,” said Mark Deschene, Voluntary Services chief.

The original plan was to build the planter boxes and get the soil ready for spring planting, but the Bank of America employees had other ideas.

The group volunteered a half day to build planter boxes, then purchased and planted vegetable plants for the garden. St. John staff worked alongside them to complete the project in one day.

Abate-Keys said last year’s garden was a learning experience.

“As plants started to flourish, some of the clinic patients showed interest and gave us tips,” she said.

The staff spent the winter months planning for the 2014 planting seasons. Barbara Estavan, St. John clinic manager, and Abate-Keyes planned out crops that would be easy for patients to care for and harvest.

“We are hoping to get some of the mental health groups involved in the future to assist with the garden,” said Abate-Keyes, who also believes that gardening is therapeutic.

“Ms. Estavan and I take pride in our little clinic community garden and try to encourage staff and patient involvement,” she said. “We are already discussing what to plant in the fall and we haven’t even picked our first summer cucumber yet!”

Abate-Keyes said patients are welcome to take any of the produce that is ripe on the day of their clinic visit.

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