By Brooke Strickland
Growing Veterans in Lynden was founded in 2012 by Christopher Brown, a Purple Heart recipient and Marine veteran ofAfghanistan and Iraq, and Christina Wolf, who is a former mental health counselor who turned to farming. The duo recognized that farming was a great way to foster human connection and began their organization to serve veterans who were transitioning back to civilian life. For many veterans, that is a challenge, and finding a place where they have camaraderie and peer support is one of the best ways to be successful.
So Growing Veterans started planting, and to date approximately 2,115 volunteers (42% veterans and 58% civilians) have worked alongside each other, raising 115,000 pounds of organic produce. The organization has donated 31,500 pounds to local food banks and low-income residents. Said Michael Frazier, executive director of Growing Veterans: “On our organic fields, veterans bonded, shared stories and welcomed one another home. Healthy soil and community support created a sense of belonging and purpose.”
The goal of the organization is to not just to help veterans successfully transition home. Training is now a big component.
Three years ago, Growing Veterans started offering formal peer support training that is now accredited, during which people could learn more about trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder and transition stress. The three-day workshops also teach participants about “being present” and offering empathy while giving them the opportunity to practice active listening.At the end of 2018, the organization had successfully held 12 workshops for 138 participants, 77% of them veterans. In2019 alone, Growing Veterans has served 42 people in three workshops.
“We encourage reintegration to take place in a safe informal space where relationships blossom, where vets interact with comrades and community members of all ages, and where they receive information about benefits and health services from peers as the need arises,” Frazier said. “Through farming, vets see a strong connection between their military skills and their abilities to contribute positively to the health of their communities. Farming fosters positive community connections—a large step towards self-confidence and reintegration.”
The community and other organizations have been very receptive to what Growing Veterans is doing. They regularly collaborate with the Farmer Veteran Coalition, national foundations, research agencies, the Washington Department ofVeterans Affairs, Veteran Conservation Corps and numerous other organizations. Growing Veterans has cooperating with several research studies to help determine the effectiveness of their programs and has found that the veterans involved in the farm or other services have reported an 87% increased sense of purpose and belonging, 91% satisfaction in professional and skill development, and 74% improved communication skills.
Frazier looks forward to continuing to plant seeds of hope with veterans that are looking to find their place in the world after military service. As they continue to grow food and cultivate bonds with veterans, Growing Farms expects to continue its positive influence. He says, “At the core, we empower veterans to cultivate purpose and belonging … with an ultimate goal of ending the isolation that leads to veteran suicide. By spreading the culture of peer support … we will have a wider reach and a greater impact on veterans, civilians, and our communities throughout Washington state and beyond.”