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Veterans dig into Whole Health

Man bending to tend chard and onions in raised garden bed

Peter Steciow, Army Veteran and Whole Health partner, teaches Veterans at the Cincinnati VAMC how to grow healthy food and reap the benefits of fresh air and friendship.

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Green thumb optional — gardening is good for body, mind, and spirit, and VA gardening opportunities help Veterans dig deep in support of their Whole Health. Veterans nationwide are benefitting from gardening programs that allow them to move the body, connect with peers, prepare healthy foods, and improve their overall sense of well-being.

Veteran lifts rocks and his sense of pride

Army Veteran David Jedrzejewski lost his pride after a stroke affected his mobility. “Self pity — that’s all I had inside of me,” he said. As a patient at the Robley Rex VA Medical Center in Louisville, Kentucky, Jedrzejewski reluctantly joined other Veterans to help construct and plant garden beds under the guidance of Recreation Therapy.

“I had a bad attitude. I hated everybody around me … I wouldn’t communicate with anybody,” he said. “I’m outside and thinking ‘What am I doing here? I can do nothing … I wanted to cry,’” Jedrzejewski said.

However, when Jedrzejewski noticed some rocks on the ground, he thought they could be used to build a border. Using his wheeled walker, he slowly began to collect and place the rocks, and over a couple of weeks, he created a 14-foot border. He began to feel like he had a purpose again. It gave him a reprieve from his emotional pain and built his strength. And now, “I enjoy working in the garden. It gives me satisfaction … to make something out of dirt and seed,” Jedrzejewski said.

“They trusted me with all these flower beds, all the black dirt, the flower seeds and everything. You don't know how that makes you feel. It's unbelievable. That feeling. The joy you get back in life, the enthusiasm you got back in life. It just gave me so much. I don't know how to say thank you, but that's what I'm trying to say — thank you,” said Jedrzejewski.

Man with cane standing in front of raised garden beds and beside rock border

By helping build and plant a community garden at Robley Rex VA, Army Veteran David Jedrzejewski found purpose and hope after a debilitating stroke.

Away from the screen and into the garden

As a Whole Health Partner, Army Veteran Peter Steciow encourages Veterans to garden as a way to unplug. “Today we lead very stressful lives with many hours at our electronic devices. Gardening provides a way to get out and enjoy the green, the birds, the sounds and smells [of nature], and get our hands in the dirt, which has been proven to be therapeutic … and you know you are getting good food,” he explained.

Steciow has 65 years of experience in growing food and volunteers at the Cincinnati VA Medical Center, where Veterans work together to prepare healthy meals with the harvest. The facility provides the “garden-to-table” experience — offering classes in both growing food and cooking it. “The garden offers amazing-tasting produce and a diversion from pain, socialization with many wonderful Veterans, and promotes hope,” he said.

The research is in

Gardening is good for your body, improves sleep, creates social connections, and boosts your mood. As a low-impact form of exercise, working in the garden improves muscle and bone strength, flexibility, and heart health. Enjoying the fruits (and veggies) of your labor adds fiber and nutrients to your diet, and being outside in the sunshine boosts your immune system and improves sleep. A community garden can offer connection, which helps with feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Many VA health care facilities offer gardening programs, including LaSalle VA Clinic in Illinois, Honor VA Clinic in Kansas, and West Los Angeles VAMC in California, to name a few. Contact your local facility to find out about gardening and Whole Health offerings near you.


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