In the spring of 2016, Licensed Practical Nurse Aaron Robinson heard that the greenhouse at the VA Northern Indiana Healthcare System was to be razed. As an employee at the VA location, the greenhouse had always caught his attention, and he knew he could put the structure to good use. Robinson approached his Nurse Manager on the Inpatient Psychiatric Unit and the Mental Health Inpatient Chief Nurse with his interest. They both encouraged him to use the greenhouse to get patients out of the building and more active. By May of 2016, the Greenhouse/Garden Project was approved and Robinson started his “dirt-therapy” program with a small group of participants.
The group planted tomatoes, peppers, green beans, squash, zucchini, and cucumbers. “While tending the garden our veterans enjoyed the fresh vegetables, sunshine, the grass under their feet and dirt under their nails,” Robinsons says.
The following year, Robinson decided to expand and start all of the plants from seed inside the greenhouse. Doing so allowed Robinson to include more veterans in the program, and the Recreation Therapy Department started to transport veterans with mobility issues to the greenhouse, providing additional opportunities for therapeutic activity.
Just over a year into the program, Robinson found that he needed more supplies to accommodate the growth, and since the program falls outside of the VA and DOD budget, the program relies entirely on donations. The Voluntary Services Department located on-site has been the primary source for supplies, but with quick growth of the program, the needs began to mount.
When The American Legion Department of Indiana heard of the need for resources in the Greenhouse/Garden Project, the Department wanted to help cover the operating budget for the program so that Robinson could grow without having to worry about funding. The Department wrote an Operation Comfort Warrior grant on behalf of the Greenhouse/Garden Project to cover the cost of two years worth of operating expenses. Department of Indiana Commander Allen Connelly presented the check to Robinson and representatives of the VA Northern Indiana Healthcare System. “It takes a big weight off my chest. Because I’m always worried, always trying to find things on sale, trying to find every resource I can possibly find to cover what I need to have done.” Says Robinson.
Results from the therapy program have surpassed everyone’s expectations. Robinsons says “When we started, I was working as a nurse on the psychiatric unit, we would have behaviors that were assaultive and when we started coming out here (to the garden) we saw behaviors go from one to two a week, to one to two a year. Which was phenomenal.” Robinson has become popular with the veterans, “When I walk into the building, guys ask “when can we go back out?”
“Today, our garden supplies several projects. …We use our vegetables to prepare fresh meals for our veterans on the units. And now the majority of the veterans that are housed in the Veteran Community Living Center and the Mental Health Inpatient units are participating in the Greenhouse/Garden Project.” Says Robinson. Staff support for the program has grown as well. “We have assistance from staff on most units and all service departments to keep things working smoothly. …Just like our plants, the program continues to grow. With the support from the leadership of the Veteran CLC, Engineering, and Voluntary Service, we have been able to triple the garden size and start an orchard.”
Thinking of the future, Robinson points out that one day he might be a patient in the program. “I’m a veteran myself. There may come a day when I’m here, you never can tell what tomorrow holds. If I need to come here to have my mental health or physical health taken care of, at least I know there are programs and people that care enough to make sure it happens. It could be any of us, and we all deserve the best of what can be offered out here.”
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