Home of the Brave Foundation using garden to assist veterans’ recovery
MILFORD, Del. — Averell Johns’ path to homelessness began several years ago when his 72-year-old mother suffered a series of mini-strokes that created a crushing amount of medical debt.
On top of that, a shoulder injury made it impossible for him to continue as a textbook coordinator at Delaware State University, he said. Then, in 2016, he was in a car accident, and doctors performing a routine follow-up discovered that somewhere along the line, Johns, 51, had suffered an aneurysm.
It explained a lot, he said — his headaches, his fatigue, his growing struggle to make it through a day’s work.
In May, he ended up in a bed at the Home of the Brave Foundation, open to homeless military veterans. While he slowly works to rebuild his life, he said he spends a significant part of his day tending to a small garden next to the Sussex County facility.
“I’ve always been interested in flowers,” the Navy veteran said about a large group of recently planted marigolds. “They beautify the world. They’ve got this place looking so differently from when I first came here.”
It’s a project started in the spring by Nick Brown and Alison Willocks, two Master Gardeners who thought a working garden at the shelter and counseling facility could help feed its small handful of veterans. (Johns said he was a reservist cryptologic technician for two years in the mid-1980s.)
Brown, a 73-year-old Vietnam veteran, said he’s led similar community gardening efforts across his career in Delaware and Florida. His relationship with agriculture convinced him a garden could be therapeutic for homeless veterans.
“This is my religious experience,” Brown said. “I have this amazing awe for nature in the world when I see what we’re able to do out there.”
The enterprise has grown gradually over the last several months. Brown and Willocks visit two or three days a week to maintain it, but it’s all donated time. Lumber to build raised beds was provided by a local construction company. A recent fall festival provided leftover straw bales.
The garden produces a diverse array of fruits and vegetables, including lettuce, kale, spinach, onions, beets, cabbage, beans, peas, honeydew and watermelon — products that can be used by the facility’s cook while preparing residents’ meals. Before the garden, a larger portion of its meals came from donated canned goods, said Jessica Finan, the facility’s executive director.
“The residents have enjoyed obviously all the fresh vegetables because without that we can’t afford to purchase all that produce,” she said.
Home of the Brave provides temporary housing for more than 20 male and female veterans. It offers food, security, employment assistance, counseling services, transportation and heath care, and it is supported by the state, the federal government and donations from local organizations, Finan said.
At its core, Home of the Brave exists to help homeless veterans rebuild their lives.
“We chart a path for each individual,” she said.
Brown and Willocks said they don’t push gardening duties on any of the residents. To date, just a small handful of residents play a significant role in its maintenance. Johns said he contributes four to five times a day, in 15-minute chunks, until he tires. He credits both Master Gardeners for making his happier.
“They’ve helped me out so much since I’ve been here,” he said.
There’s another 1-acre patch of yard behind Home of the Brave that Brown said he thinks is perfect for the garden’s expansion. Eventually, it could produce enough food for residents to open a stand at a local farmer’s market.
“That would be another great experience for some of the guys, I think. To take the produce, harvest it and work the marketing,” Brown said.
It’s also another great way for the University of Delaware Extension, which supports Master Gardeners, to promote the benefits of vegetable gardening to residents or visiting veterans, Willocks said.
Once he’s moved out of Home of the Brave, Johns said he’d love to keep working on the garden. He’s grown attached.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he said.
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