Skip to main content

Gardens prove to be a lifeline for veterans at risk, transforming their mental health through nature

Greenspaces at a Chicago VOA housing development credited as ‘healing to the soul’

Chicago - At the intersection of West 60th Street and South Halstead in Englewood on the city’s south side, there’s a Volunteers of America (VOA) housing development flanked by residences, a medical clinic, several missionaries and churches. Look beyond the series of buildings on this block and you may find Aaron Potter, a U.S. Army veteran and resident of Hope Manor II, his eyes fixated on the landscape watching the gardens grow. 

“I’ve been out in this garden almost every day since I got here in 2018,” says Potter. “Nestor, the program manager, was always asking me if I needed anything. One day, he asked me to help him put up some birdhouses around the block. Within a few months, we’re in the garden tilling the ground and pulling weeds. Someone once donated a bunch of plants so we put them in the ground to see what would happen. 

“Being out there allows me to help something grow, and it teaches me patience to wait until it happens. This (garden) shows me that I am willing to continue a project that I started. The tilling of the ground is deep like our minds, and we can continue to renew ourselves every day.” 

The 57-year-old was never one to give up on life, but fell into homelessness following years of caring for his mother afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease and his father’s colon cancer. Potter ran out of money - using his own funds from his cleaning job to buy their much-needed medicine. His parents passed away. Soon after, he lost the family home.

“I didn’t realize that as a veteran I could have gotten support,” he recalls. “I was doing the best with what I knew.” 

“Our goal is to empower veterans to transform their lives in the most positive way possible,” says Nestor Zavala, program manager at Chicago VOA’s Hope Manor II, one of the first large-scale, supportive housing developments in the country specifically designed for head of household veterans and their families. The campus-style development, which is home to 73 veterans and their families, was built on land donated by the City of Chicago with low-income tax credits for construction and development. 

“Through research, I know that having gardens in your community reduces violent crime, and boosts health and wellness,” he says. “We are in a food desert here and there’s not a lot of green space. All scenarios show why a garden is so important.” 

In Chicago’s urban green space, 8.5% of city land without buildings is open to the public, (How Green is our City: Chicago’s Urban Green Space). That may seem abundant, but these spaces are not evenly distributed throughout the city’s north and south side. Many mass transit routes are not accessible in certain areas and those communities often face funding deficits for the green spaces to remain functional and attractive. In addition, across the U.S. studies show:

? There’s a startling lack of green spaces in communities of color” compared to predominantly white neighborhoods. Nationally, 78% of people of color live in census tracts considered “nature-deprived,” compared to 21% of white residents. (Jul 27, 2020) 

? Human exposure to green surroundings reduces mental fatigue and improves the ability to concentrate. There’s a willingness to handle problems more deliberately and less aggressively. Even the addition of a few trees makes people feel safer 

? Gardening programs are an effort to provide green spaces for inner-city neighborhoods to reduce aggression and develop a community. They’re not just growing plants and flowers, but creating calming spaces where people can go to improve their mental health. 

“I go back to the garden with residents and their ability to interact and connect here is so good for them,” says Nestor Zavala. 

This past summer, the majority of the 16 beds at Hope Manor II for residents were spoken for with vegetables and flowers growing or decorative rock gardens.

“They take full advantage of this multi-purpose space - whether using it for mental therapy or simply planting,” Zavala adds. “Every year, the gardens are the same but there are new events, features or new ways to look at it. 

“I’ve been here three years now. When I first came, this was a place for residents to learn about gardening, adopt a bed and grow their own food. It still is that, but with the pandemic, it transitioned into a mental health space, so we added bird feeders, birdhouses and birdbaths. Feedback from our residents last year led us to turn it into a tranquil spot to look at and smell flowers, too. It’s a quieter area, secluded in a good way that’s family-friendly.” 

Female veterans and those with children face the most critical challenges in today’s society. Jen, who asked us not to use her full name, is a U.S. Air Force Combat Veteran. She moved with her children to Hope Manor II four years ago, suffering from permanent back issues following her service in the military police. For her, the garden is a healthy environment where you can work toward healing. 

“That garden is a sacred area,” she says. “It’s peaceful and serene. There are days when I don’t want to get moving, but the sunlight and loving energy that radiates in that area motivates me. That garden cultivates love in the area. It makes me grateful, too. 

Ivy covers the back fence area so that when residents are in the gardens, there is no view of the alley - a bit of private space in a busy city. This summer, a new weather-resistant family-size bench was installed and the team is working on turning the back property into a classroom-style environment. The Girl Scouts even requested to be involved here, learn about nature and how to attract animals and insects to the garden. Zavala is working on a butterfly release program through a veteran who happens to be a botanist at the Chicago Botanical Gardens. 

“As program manager, I focus on the therapeutic benefit from these gardens,” says Zavala. “Planting is one thing, but it’s also beneficial for someone who doesn’t get involved in any other

activity here. It’s about setting goals and planning things out. That’s what is often missing for our residents. They get a lot of poetic perspective from this, and that’s my passion. 

“Successful gardening is bringing people out here. This might be their only place to relax and enjoy nature. Any way we can attract them to the garden is a win for me.” 

Jen says she retreats to the garden in the early morning hours or later at night when it’s quiet, pulling weeds, and cleaning up debris or trash that blows into the yard. Sometimes she sits on the bench and reads a book. She looks forward to growing greens like spinach and collard, and ripe red tomatoes. She considers this spot healing to the soul. 

“If you are going through something, no matter who you are, that area has people coming together and bonding with relationships and friendships in this little ornamental space.”


Julie Gaier
Storyteller & Content Strategist
LinkedIn: Julie Gaier

Keywords: gardens, greenspaces, mental health, veterans

Posted in Neighborhood News, Community Organizations

Connect with us

Stay up to date with the the latest news and events related to the portal.

Share your story

What's going on in Englewood? Share your story and become an author on the portal.

Powered by Teamwork Englewood

Uniting organizations serving Englewood residents and working toward the common goal of building a stronger community.

More about Teamwork Englewood »