In early 2016, Aaron Robinson heard that the greenhouse at the VA Northern Indiana Health Care System was to be razed. As a licensed practical nurse at the VA, the greenhouse had always caught Robinson’s attention. And he knew he could put the structure to good use.
Robinson shared his interest for the greenhouse with the Inpatient Psychiatric Unit nurse manager and the Mental Health Inpatient chief nurse – both encouraged Robinson to use the greenhouse as a way for patients to get outside and become more active.
By May of that year, the Greenhouse Garden Project was approved and Robinson started his “dirt therapy” program with a small group of patients. The group planted tomatoes, peppers, green beans, squash, zucchini and cucumbers.
“While tending the garden our veterans enjoyed the fresh vegetables, sunshine, the grass under their feet and dirt under their nails,” Robinsons said.
The following year, Robinson started the plants from seeds inside the greenhouse. This allowed more veterans to be involved with the program, including veterans with mobility issues to provide additional opportunities for therapeutic activity.
The Greenhouse Garden Project relies on donations. And with the quick growth of the program, the needs began to mount.
The American Legion Department of Indiana presented Robinson with a $5,000 American Legion Operation Comfort Warriors grant on Tuesday, June 10, to help cover the operating budget for the program as it continues to grow. The check will fund the greenhouse's operating costs for two years.
Department of Indiana Commander Allen Connelly and Past National Commander Jim Koutz presented the check to Robinson and representatives of the VA Northern Indiana Health Care System.
“It takes a big weight off my chest. Because I’m always worried, always trying to find things on sale, trying to find every resource I can possibly find to cover what I need to have done,” Robinson said.
Robinson said results from the therapy program have surpassed everyone’s expectations. “When we started, I was working as a nurse on the psychiatric unit and we would have behaviors that were assaultive. When we started coming out here (to the garden) we saw behaviors go from one to two a week, to one to two a year. Which was phenomenal.
“When I walk into the building, (patients) ask, ‘When can we go back out?’”
Vegetables from the garden are used to prepare fresh meals for veterans on the units. The majority of the veterans that are housed in the Veteran Community Living Center and the Mental Health Inpatient units are participating in the Greenhouse Garden Project.
Staff support for the program has grown as well.
“We have assistance from staff on most units and all service departments to keep things working smoothly,” Robinson said. “Just like our plants, the program continues to grow. With the support from the leadership of the Veteran Community Living Center, Engineering and Voluntary Service, we have been able to triple the garden size and start an orchard.”
Thinking of the future, Robinson points out that one day he might be a patient in the program. “I’m a veteran myself. There may come a day when I’m here, you never can tell what tomorrow holds. If I need to come here to have my mental health or physical health taken care of, at least I know there are programs and people that care enough to make sure it happens. It could be any of us, and we all deserve the best of what can be offered out here.”