US Veterans Find Solace & Service in Community Garden

May. 15, 2014 / By

By CSULB Senior Seminar Reporter Gisela Merino

Under the shadows of crumbling, abandoned naval houses overrun by stray cats is a community garden on the southeast corner of Century Villages at Cabrillo (CVC), a community housing collaboration of several supportive organizations. Filled with tomatoes, herbs, flowers and more, the garden is cared for by war veterans recovering from combat trauma, homelessness, and substance abuse.

Robert “Tony” McMahon began gardening watermelons among the weeds in May of 2012. By April, his organization received funding and over 200 volunteers from Home Depot to help turn the field of weeds into “Tony’s Dream Garden.”

McMahon’s vision for the garden was to create an inclusive experience for veterans at the residential center at CVC, many of whom were injured in combat. Pathways were designed specifically to accommodate wheelchairs, and several planter boxes were modified to stand of stalk for leg room.

But “Tony’s Dream Garden” isn’t just used by veterans.

On any given night, over 1,000 persons find sanctuary on CVC’s 27-acres of land, formerly a U.S. naval housing site. CVC provides affordable housing and homeless support programs for all types of people, including women fleeing abusive partners, and families who were no longer able to afford the rising price of housing in Long Beach.

“Where ever you go [on campus], there’s people at every turn that’ll say hello,” said U.S. Navy veteran Eric Heilsburg, a volunteer and organizer of the garden.

The planters he tended overflowed with flowers and Heilsburg said he and his compatriots considered harvesting them into little pots to deliver to the on-campus center for battered women.

Heilsberg, who was introduced to the garden through the US Vet’s SEALS program, is required to amass 10 hours of community service a week as part of his residency agreement.

“I really want to continue working for a living but I can’t work right now because of health issues,” said Heilsberg, who’s heart condition and back pains and need for a walking cane inhibit him from major physical labor at age 56. Due to his disability, the garden became the ideal outlet for Heilsberg, taking charge of the watering of the plants.

“Being involved in the garden has been a good opportunity to supplement my efforts to be productive and work,” Heilsberg said.

Every morning, Heilsberg waters the vegetables and organizes watering schedules for other veteran volunteers.

“Other vets will come in and I show them, ‘these plants need to be watered,’ and ‘these ones don’t need to be watered,’ so it’s a responsibility.” Heilsberg said. “The end result is a smile on veterans who are there to help themselves.”

The garden is also an everyday outlet for Spielman, a frequent volunteer at the community garden. While raining birdseeds on a hungry squirrel he discussed with Heilsberg on what to plant next. Spielman said he hopes to carry his horticultural skills beyond the CVC and start a small farm of his own.

“I know it’s not a lot of money, but it’s a dream it’s a dream job for me,” Spielman said.

Spielman served in Germany as a Calvary scout in 1985 to 1987 for the U.S. Army. He continued to live in Germany 11 years after his service, where his daughter lives to this day. He later returned to the U.S. and married. In 2007, he and his wife divorced.

Spielman found himself homeless for the next seven years, struggling with an alcoholic addiction that he’d fostered since he was 17-years-old.

“I was basically dying of alcoholism,” Spielman said.

Alcohol poisoning brought him to stay in the hospital’s intensive care for a few days where he learned of his medical benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which brought him to the CVC and its garden.

At CVC, organizations collaborate and weave services to provide one self-sustaining community. The American Indian Changing Spirits substance abuse treatment facility for Native American men, for example, also has a neighboring garden.

Gardeners often wave to each other from across the log fence and combine their harvests of mint and other herbs to bring to fellow residents.

Many veteran residents like Speilman come not only from a background of homelessness, but also substance abuse. Some have spent years of homelessness and recovery without contact with their children or grandchildren. But with children also making their home at CVC, residents often mentor the children and help support other struggling families.

“They’re kind of practicing being around children and acting like dads, which they were not able to do in the substance abuse chunk of their lives,” Brislin said. “Now in this safe space, they can go out there and say, ‘Okay kids, let’s go out there and plant some pansies!'”

It takes a neighborhood of support to give kids opportunities outside of the center. School age children without private transportation, for example, face the obstacle of going to public school every morning.

Every weekday morning, with the organization of the Oasis Center, Cabrillo High school faculty escort the 30 to 40 CVC children through the Cabrillo athletic fields to shorten the distance between the CVC and Elizabeth Hudson Elementary.

DSCN3874Veteran residents also use their skills to improve campus life. For some, that means providing more green spaces as a buffer from outside pollutants.

The nearest park space for CVC children is the Kaboom! Park on campus. But the Terminal Island Freeway can be seen only a few yards from the pocket park’s outer fencing, causing a diesel particulates and NO2 emissions from the freeway to directly enter the children’s lungs.

CVC veterans and Changing Spirits are currently collaborating to relieve impact of toxins on the campus by repairing the masonry at the Kaboom! playground planter boxes to add to CVC’s “urban forest” of 190 trees.

According to CVC Executive Director Steve Colman, the garden project helps sustain CVC’s oxygen quality and quality of community.

“The vets feel a sense of ownership when gardening,” Brislin said. “They’re cleaning up the air; they’re giving the kids here something; they’re feeding the people!”


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