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Medicinal Gardening : Veterans Plant Anxieties, Reap Harvest of Healing

June 30, 1988|CHRISTOPHER KRUEGER | Times Staff Writer

On a 15-acre farm in the center of Westwood, 29 disabled war veterans focus their energies daily on growth--for their plants, for their vegetables, and mostly, for themselves.

The veterans, who have mental and physical disabilities, are participating in a horticultural therapy program at the Veterans Administration Medical Center.

It's a program that has blossomed beyond traditional therapy. The veterans receive occupational training in landscaping and a crash course in free enterprise. Outside the hospital walls, they dabble as entrepreneurs in the restaurant trade, selling fresh lettuce, corn, basil and other herbs to some of the trendiest restaurants in Los Angeles.

According to hospital staff, the program sometimes proves successful in healing veterans where other therapies have failed. Since 1986, 20 graduates of the program have left either to take jobs or to return to school. And the veterans are taking pride in their work and in themselves.

Ida Cousino, a horticultural therapist who directs the program, says the veterans' nursery is an unmatchable combination of agriculture and treatment.

"You have the two great things, nurturing people and plants. We grow people and plants down here," Cousino said.

The veterans say the program gives them a tranquility they haven't felt in years.

Bob Jepperson said that cultivating plants has helped to dissipate the hatred he brought back from Vietnam more than two decades ago.

The soft-spoken 40-year-old says he struggled after the war to hold down positions as a security guard, only to be repeatedly set back by alcoholism. After he was treated at the Long Beach Veterans Administration Medical Center in 1984, Jepperson went to the Westwood VA hospital, where he was trained in janitorial maintenance. He worked as a janitor for two years until stress from his war experiences started him to drinking again.

Jepperson believes the peaceful setting on the VA farm has given him a better look at life.

"I saw a lot of combat. But now that I'm around plants, in a peaceful environment, I can put all that behind me," Jepperson said.

Dr. Alan Simpson, program leader of vocational rehabilitation, says the program is valuable because it provides a measurement of how well the veterans will function outside the hospital. Staff members watch the patients to see how well they respond to supervision and tolerate stress, he said.

The veterans who handle their jobs well are put into training programs in grounds maintenance, Simpson said. Three veterans recently were hired by the city of Beverly Hills to work in the parks, he said.

Simpson said that for some veterans, working with the soil is more therapeutic than other occupational therapies.

"By pulling weeds, they get aggressions out. Also . . . just putting something in the ground and watching (it) grow (has) as soothing, calming effect," Simpson said.

Sell Produce

With three hospital staff members, the veterans grow a variety of plants and produce, including flowers and specialty vegetables, such as chrysanthemum greens and baby lettuce. They also help sell the produce and make deliveries to restaurants.

Because of the program is small, the veterans are able to deliver fresh produce on the day it is picked and can grow selected crops to satisfy the demands of restaurants.

Mary Sue Milliken, co-owner and chef of City Restaurant and Border Grill, describes the veterans' produce as "impeccable, incredible. Everything is almost still alive."

At City Restaurant, Milliken says, "we change our menu every day. So, if (Cousino) has something interesting for us, we can find a way to use it. . . . We use as much as they can grow."

The veterans also deliver to Le Marmiton, Studio Grill and Palm Court, and sell vegetables every Monday at the Certified Public Market in Plummer Park from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. They sell house plants Monday from noon to 1 p.m. at the VA hospital.

Self-Financing Program

Except for the salaries of the three staff members and facilities costs, the program finances itself, Cousino said. Seventy percent of the money raised is paid to the veterans as compensation, and the remainder is used to buy materials and pay farming costs.

Cousino inherited an overgrown garden that had been closed for three years when she took over the program in January, 1986. The work, which ranges from weeding the garden to raising delicate baby lettuce in the shade house, allows veterans with a range of disabilities to participate as equals, she said. "We can find activities for anyone to do here," she said.

As coordinator, Cousino serves as a farmer and an occupational therapist. But she feels rewarded by her double duty. On a recent morning, Brian Whitehead handed her a note written on two sheets of yellow legal paper.

"My nurse asked me to write a letter of thanks to you," said Whitehead, 39, a psychiatric patient who was returning to Tuskegee, Ala., to be with his family.

Whitehead, who would be an outpatient at a hospital there, said he was grateful to Cousino because the farm "helped to rehabilitate me. It helped me recover my work ethic. I achieved some hope of getting out of my alcoholic (condition) by living around flowers."

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