United States Department of Veterans Affairs
 Health Care
Birds of a Feather Heal Together
Matthew Simmons with a white cockatoo on his shoulder and one held to his chest.
Matthew Simmons with two of the park's residents.

Melvin La Rue is a former Marine who still has a robust military work ethic. It shows, especially when he cares for abused parrots at an urban oasis called Serenity Park Parrot Sanctuary on the grounds of a VA hospital in Los Angeles.

La Rue is fighting a past that includes homelessness, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and jail time. Both he and the mistreated birds are at Serenity Park to heal from their traumatic experiences. "Since I started working with the birds, my attitude has changed. I'm calmer and I smile more," La Rue said.

Dr. Lorin Lindner, a licensed psychologist and the founder of Serenity Park, loves parrots and Veterans equally. Lindner has been rescuing birds for 20 years and works with homeless Veterans, a passion she's had since the Vietnam War when she felt too helpless to do anything because she was so young.

Lindner began to work at an organization called New Directions, leading group therapy and PTSD groups for homeless Veterans suffering from substance abuse and mental illness. At the same time, she began building a sanctuary for abused birds.

"In the groups, the Veterans were stoic guys who would sit there with their arms crossed and not reveal too much," said Lindner. One day, she brought the Veterans to the sanctuary to help with construction. "All of a sudden, they were cuddling the birds and talking to them," said Lindner. She'd been working for weeks to get the Veterans to open up during therapy; the parrots accomplished this in seconds.

A Job and a Boost of Self-Confidence

"I'd certainly heard of animal-assisted therapy, but this was inadvertent. I wasn't expecting this," said Lindner.

She called her new Veteran-parrot partnership Birds of a Feather, a work therapy program where Veterans and birds mend their wounds while the Veterans develop career skills and earn a salary. "These guys are doing something significant with their lives again," said Lindner. "They feel they have value, merit, and worth."

New Directions refers Veterans to Serenity Park, where they work with the parrots, sweeping cages, replenishing seed, and preparing fruit platters rivaling a Sunday brunch presentation at the swankiest hotel. The Veterans also serve up hot food like edamame, steamed potatoes, squash, and corn, leading Lindner to joke that Serenity Park has some of the most spoiled birds around.

Veteran Matthew Simmons, one of the first participants in the program, is proof of the program's success. Not only is he now the park manager, overseeing Veteran workers and birds alike, but he also started his own cage-building business. Simmons travels out to posh homes in Beverly Hills and Bel Air to design and construct animal cages for the well-heeled.

It wasn't like this before. Simmons suffered from PTSD, self-medicating his pain with heroin, prescription drugs, and alcohol. He lost his six-figure job in computer software. A Desert Storm and Desert Shield Veteran, Simmons attended PTSD groups at his VA facility, but he couldn't relate to older Veterans when they began talking about Vietnam.

He quit the group and started working at the sanctuary. As he cared for the birds and built trust with them, Simmons started to open up in his personal relationships. His case manager asked him how one of the hurt birds was healing and Simmons animatedly updated him, detailing how the bird was doing much better.

"Gotcha!" said the case manager. "You're finally showing some emotion. You say it's because the bird is feeling better, but really, you're the one feeling better because of this bird."

"Here, You Can Make a Decision for a Better Life"

The parrots have made all the difference in Simmons' life. He's a vegetarian now. His company offered him his job back, but he turned it down, preferring to work outside in the 20-acre park surrounded by singing birds, where he could help both the parrots and the Veterans in his care.

"We take the cases that most people wouldn't even look at," Simmons said of the Veterans who work at Serenity Park. "They're all guys with PTSD. Most, if not all, have drug or alcohol problems. Here, you can make a decision for a better life."

For Melvin La Rue, the former Marine, Serenity Park changed his circumstances. When he came to the sanctuary, he was struggling with substance abuse and out of money after a two-year job hunt. These days, La Rue is a supervisor and caretaker at the sanctuary, interviewing and hiring Veterans. He also earned his Commercial Driver's License, further increasing his job options.

"I've been getting good feedback since I took over this job," said La Rue. He's taken on the role of park ambassador, answering questions from the public and the doctors and nurses who stop by on their breaks.

"The park gives a person a chance to work at his own pace and slowly get adjusted to being in the workforce," said La Rue. "I always say, 'If you do a job, do it right and do it well.'"

VA's American Veteran produced a wonderful video profile of the parrot sanctuary available on YouTube. For more information about Serenity Park, visit http://www.parrotcare.org/.

By Stephanie Strauss, VA Staff Writer