Asheville – We’ve all heard the numbers: nearly 20 veterans commit suicide every day. You go into the military as one person, and come out as another. Within the armed forces, there is a sense of camaraderie, brotherhood and sisterhood, and community. There is also a sense of purpose, a mission.
When you leave the military, you are coming home to a different world. All veterans face a challenge in transitioning from military life back into the civilian sector. Unfortunately, many veterans lack the tools, support networks, and resources needed to meet this challenge. The results are an alarmingly high rate of veteran suicide, depression, divorce, homelessness, and substance abuse. It got even worse with the pandemic, as these veterans found themselves at home and isolated.
A Bright Light of Hope
There is hope and help. That help is the Veteran’s Healing Farm (VHF) in Hendersonville, NC, whose mission is “to enhance the mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing of our nation’s veterans through agri-therapy and community.” The farm was started by John Mahshie of Hendersonville. Trying to deal with grief and depression after leaving the Air Force, John discovered that working the earth gave him a new sense of freedom. He recognized that he needed to be outside with people who cared about him. He now had a mission, and he wanted to give his fellow vets that same opportunity. “Gardening,” he said, “had saved his life, and this farm could save others like him.”
A Sense of Community and Self-Worth
The Veterans Healing Farm was born out of a sincere desire to create a place where veterans could plug into a new community and discover a new “mission” outside of the military. They believe that friendship, connectedness, community, and serving others, are essential to overall health and wellness.
Why agriculture? Farming offers a host of therapeutic benefits. In addition to encouraging healthy habits like eating well, interpersonal relationships, and physical activity, VHF helps to cultivate a sense of self-empowerment and self-worth. This can be achieved when their members realize they are an important part of the community and others trust and depend on their contributions.
Megan Landreth, Farm Administrator, explained, “We have a lot of different opportunities for the veterans at the farm. We utilize agri-therapy, the act of actually working the land, planting something and watching it grow, taking that produce and donating it to someone in need. It can help in many ways. Farming also supports the premiss of community, having other veterans out there volunteering along side, getting to talk to other people that have been in your shoes and have an idea of what you’ve been through. We are there to be a safe, calm place for you to come. If you don’t want to talk about it, you don’t have to. We don’t ask questions.”
An Unusual Benefit
Dr. LuLu Shimek, Director of Plant Medicine at the Veterans Healing Farm, is a world-renowned naturopathic physician, author, leading-edge educator, international speaker, and global leader in the field of alternative health and botanical medicine. In addition to one-on-one appointments, Dr. Lulu holds workshops that teach the veterans about the healing power of plants, how to make herbal remedies, and how to cultivate new veteran relationships. All of this is free to the vets, who also help to maintain a special herb garden just for this purpose.
Alan Yelk, Executive Director of VHF, explained, “Our goal, through the use of natural plant based medicine, is to take one fewer pill a day, a week, or a month. That’s a victory.” The workshops and the one-on-one sessions with Dr. Lulu center around reducing anxiety, sleep disorders, energy, depression, and suicidal tendencies. PTSD is just one way that can lead to veterans’ considering harming themselves. Everything we do is about reducing that number, whether it’s in the fields, the workshops, the one-on-ones, or community work. It all has to start with that foundation, and then come back to it.” Yelk emphasized, “We always say work with your healthcare provider. Let them know what your doing, because depending on what you’re taking we want the best possible outcome.”
Events and Activities
“We’ve got the gardens where we have all of our produce, we’ve got our bee squad that does our beehives, and then our herb squad that works with Dr. Lulu maintaining her garden as well. We have volunteer days for all of that. We have donation days and harvest days, but we also have workshops. Those workshops range from art classes to ‘Write Your Own Story,’ self defense, canning classes, everything we could come up with, because everyone’s healing journey is different.” said Landreth. She continued, “Being able to have a place where you feel comfortable trying something new is important. All of our workshops are free to our community, which includes our veterans, their family members, caregivers, and our volunteers. They are all part of our community, and all of them are able to come out and utilize these workshops for free.”
“We also have events like Band Nights, July through October, with music, hot dogs, and hamburgers on the grill. These events are a time when it’s not about volunteering or working at a workshop, it’s a time when members can relax, enjoy themselves, and meet other people that have dealt with what they’ve dealt with. ”
Volunteering or Sponsoring
When asked what they needed most to do this work, Yelk and Landreth simultaneously said, “Volunteers and money,” and then laughed. “We are completely reliant on both of those.” Most of their funding is through grants and donations. There are only two paid employees at the farm. They rely on volunteers for everything from daily operations to helping with the farm and running events. Landreth, also a vet, said, “People come to the farm and fall in love with it, and they make donations. Some people will sponsor events, or specific programs, or will donate directly to our planting, or buying our starts.”
The Veteran”s Healing Farm collaborates with other groups that are also helping veterans. Some of these include the VA, Warrior Canine, Safe Flight, Blue Ridge Honor Flight, and Horse Sense. New classes are coming up in September with two organizations, Safe Talk and Assist, that will be on suicide prevention. These classes will be added to the calendar soon.
If you would like to volunteer, make a donation, or become a sponsor, go to veteranshealingfarm.org/. You can also check out events on their Facebook page, www.facebook.com/veteranshealingfarm, or sign up for the newsletter.