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A “Reboot” for Veterans on Farms

March 11, 2022 - Marina, CA

Brant Choate, Director of Rehabilitation Programs, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

Robert Self, Executive Director, Veterans Healing Veterans from the Inside Out

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The sun was just starting to rise over the Marina valley when I pulled into the Veteran Transition Center (VTC). We passed a crew of veterans at the gate who welcomed us into the patriotic foyer in the same building the D-Day at Fort Ord was planned. Ron Self, Executive Director of Veterans Healing Veterans (VHV), invited us into his office, an experience in itself. Ron works with his team to empower veterans coming out of prisons. In fact, he’s been successful at having California Corrections concentrate 6900 veteran prisoners into three veteran “hub” prisons of the 33 facilities. That way, he’s able to address their needs with the common base of having served in the United States armed forces. That simplifies linking them to the resources to which they are entitled.

Current State Challenges

As Ron himself experienced, veterans often suffer from post-traumatic syndrome (PTSD), disconnection, depression, and even suicide. Chronic mental illness is common. The recidivism rates for those veterans leaving prison averages 50%?. Ron is exploring an “impact farming” program “Growing Veterans” as part of a cross-fit vocational training. Other trades and activities now being offered include welding, home construction, and cross-fitness training. These employment programs provide life-skill training. Ron shared, “Success at the farm requires daily discipline. It’s all about learning the law of the harvest and how to be persistent with daily care of plants and self. It requires being mentally engaged.” Ideally, the farm job experience would be offered to residents at least one year before their release date and one year directly after their release.

“Boot Camp Out”

While farming within the prison with veterans is still under debate, VHV has been granted funds for housing and transitional vocational training and employment. Rob calls it “Boot Camp Out” for incarcerated veterans. “Engaging in farming is a great way to work through the reentry process.” Ron affirmed. There’s been a paradigm shift with how rehabilitation is best done. His peer-to-peer Veterans Healing Veterans listening and coaching model has won acclaim across the country.

Ron hopes to set up city-centered hubs of formerly incarcerated veterans like this one in Marina. He invited Brant and I to get in the car and see for ourselves. The City of Marina has designated a whole neighborhood of low-income housing not far from the VTC for housing for recently released, formerly-incarcerated veterans. “We want to grow our own food and even contribute the extra back to the community.” Ron affirmed. We toured a few ranch-style housing units to get a feel that these have been remodeled for simple, comfortable living.

Garden-Farm Concept

In the back of the development, Ron and his VTC-veteran driver pointed out the quarter-acre space that could be used for a group garden. “This program will keep the veterans from being chronically homeless. Meanwhile the VTC is being remodeled with the latest WIFI technology so that veterans can meet to work through the classroom program and coach each other. Ultimately, we want this space to be a continuation of the farming program they learn in prison.” Ron added. About 25 veterans are about to design, build and manage their own mini-farm. “That’s where we need some help!” Ron stated. Besides food, they hope to grow seedlings to give back to the community.

To succeed, this program is to be a community-based program. That means the local food bank and local college sociology interns will be involved. Brant thought it would be great to use before- and after-video clips to document the site’s transformation and interview the participating veterans. These clips could be posted on the CDCR YouTube channel within prison.

Currently, due to the veteran’s low income, they enjoy generous food donations from Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. They usually get the “rescued-food” that is within four days of expiration. Composting local village, school, and restaurant food waste could open up another revenue stream back to the community.

Trained Farmers with Social Missions needed

With the onset of spring, Ron wants experienced farmers with social missions to be able to train and empower his community of reentering veterans. These farmers would need to be local to make the impact being made at other farms with social missions. Given local farmers are willing, VHV has the funding to make this happen. Eden Streets is an association of such farmers. We plan to support farm internships to prepare them to meet such social needs. Assume farming in prisons becomes a standard vocational program and “Boot Camp Out” grows, we will need a lot more!

Author: Farmer Karl

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