Angel Blog

Providing Dirt Therapy with a Garden for Veterans

If you ask a gardener why they work so hard toiling and tending to their garden they’ll likely tell you for them it’s “dirt therapy.” While they may say it in jest, gardening actually does act as its own form of therapy. This is why some members of our team in San Antonio decided to go all in to create a garden for Veteran patients at the Polytrauma Transitional Rehab Program (PTRP). PTRP is a twelve-bed facility for mild to moderate brain injury patients that acts as a place for rehabilitation before returning home.  

Craig Caya, the Program Director for the facility says it started with a dream. There was a garden that had been previously established in 2016, but it didn’t last through Covid. It had been overgrown and not cared, which meant major restoration was needed. He mentioned it to one of our VA Representatives, Cathy Miller, during her monthly lunch distribution and the word spread internally. 

“The Soldiers’ Angels Team imminently took it and ran with it. They came out, walked the space to discuss what we wanted to do and Pat [Jopling] ran with it,” says Craig.

The team (Jana Evans, Pat Jopling, and board member Julie Coen) started planning around Aug 2022 and then started work on the garden in June of this year (there was a delay due to much-needed roof repair at the facility). 

Pat Jopling, our Outreach Coordinator, actually has a degree in horticulture and has been all in on this project. She carefully selected herbs that have healing properties, vegetables she knew would do well and would be easy to grow, and landscaping that would be well-suited for the space. 

Julie Coen, who is on our board of directors, donated most of the herbs and several of the vegetable plants after conversing with Pat about the needs of the garden. Some of the herbs came right from her own garden!

“We planted mint for patients and staff to use for tea, lavender, esperanza, holy basil, which is used for stress, rosemary for memory, Yarrow is great for healing wounds, Elderberry for Covid, Mullen is for stress, wound care, upper respiratory issues, and ear aches. We strategically planted herbs to keep the pests out without pesticides. We also planted vegetables like tomatoes, bell peppers, chilis, and beans,” says Pat. 

The entrance to the garden has three arches with climbing vines growing up them to provide shade and ambiance. 

“Pat Jopling has been the brains or expertise behind the planning. She has her degree in horticulture, so she has been a big help! We have had so much fun planning and seeing it come to life,” says Jana.

“They’ve already started harvesting some of the herbs and vegetables. Once harvested we put them in a basket with the name of the plant and its benefits. They’ve been making tea from the Lemonbalm,” says Julie, who is also a horticulturist.

Getting the garden to this point has been a big effort, with multiple volunteer days to clear the land, create walkways, weed, plant, etc. Even the staff has pitched in!

“The staff has been so helpful all pitching in to help when they can from security, nurses, PTs and OTs, and even leadership. They even have had a few Veterans help with watering and other small tasks,” says Jana.

Future plans include adding a pergola and sitting areas, irrigation, a meditation labyrinth, expanding flower beds, and more. All to help make a serene and rehabilitative environment for Veterans and staff!

“This has been a dream we’ve had for some time. Now as I look across, I am just blown away by what it is and what it will be. Our patients come after acute rehab after a life-threatening event. They come here as the next phase of their rehabilitation – not ready to go back home or work. The garden is also used to do physical activity. Patients can come out to do squatting, reaching, grasping, and other activities. There are so many therapeutic benefits and so many things we can do with the garden,” says Craig.

Pat hopes patients learn new skills they can take with them.

“Having patients take pride in the garden, come out and water, and use it for recreational therapy is great. It’s cool to see what they take from it,” she says.

This will be an ongoing project that will have seasonal changes and additions, and we hope to bring more volunteers and community partners in to participate. If you live in San Antonio, stay tuned!