Gardens At VA Hospital Provide Recreation And Therapy


ALEXANDRIA, La. (AP) — Raised garden beds at the Alexandria VA Hospital are providing recreation and therapy for the veterans who tend to them daily.

The gardens are located outside the hospital's nursing home and acute psychiatric units. They were planted in April, thanks in part to an outreach agreement between the Alexandria VA Health System and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a USDA agency.

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"For USDA and NRCS, there is a big focus on reaching out to veterans," said Amy Robertson, public affairs specialist for NRCS. " … This was a way for them (the VA) to be able to use agriculture and gardening for recreation and therapy, and it was a great way for us to reach veterans. It's really a perfect partnership."

Garden beds outside the VA's Community Living Center are raised to a height that allows access for people in wheelchairs.

"I come out here three or four times a day," said Don Jones, a Navy veteran and resident of the Community Living Center. "It's therapeutic."

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Studies back up the idea that gardening is a therapeutic outlet and good for mental health.

Robin Joffrion-Sawyer, the hospital's supervisory recreation therapist, said fresh air and sunshine also benefits patients, particularly in the psychiatric unit. In addition to PTSD, the psychiatric unit treats veterans for things like depression and substance abuse problems.

"In this setting, they can tend to focus on the negative aspects of what brought them into the hospital," she said. "Bringing them outside, giving them something to focus their attention on and a reason to socialize, I think that makes their mood better, makes their self-esteem improve, and it makes them more willing to interact with others."

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Eric Smith worked for a landscaping business in the Lafayette area after serving in the military as an Air Force security officer. Gardening is something he's missed since moving into the Community Center.

"I like being outside, being in nature — even the bugs," he said.

So far, veterans are growing fruit and vegetables like tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, watermelon, cantaloupe and strawberries. The cucumbers and a few tomatoes already have been harvested as a snack for patients to enjoy.

"It reminds of when I was a kid, and we got our vegetables out of the garden," said Gary Polk, another VA resident, who served in Vietnam. ". We ate pretty good, and our neighbors did, too."

"A goal of ours is to work with our dietary department to begin using the vegetables to cook for the patients," Joffrion-Sawyer said.

Everything in the gardens was planted during a workday coordinated by NRCS. From there, the agency has provided technical support as needed.

"At one point many years ago we had a big horticultural program. (Until recently,) we had the facilities. We had the ground. We just didn't have really the funding," Joffrion-Sawyer said. "Once we were able to network with USDA and NCRS, they came in, provided the funding, but also gave us guidance as far education, because didn't know exactly what is was we needed to plant and what would work the best."

– by Miranda Klein, AP reporter

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