Birds flew over VetRest’s Bybee Lakes Victory Garden on October 15, 2022, and tomatoes were hanging heavily from the vines. It seemed to be the last harvest for the garden, which is built and maintained by VetRest, a non-profit organization that provides wellness and mentorship to veterans in safe, supportive environments on land used by the Bybee Lake. Hope Center for Transitional Housing. Chainsaws rang through the air that day as a large pile of wood donated by the Portland Rotary Club was intended to be used to build six fresh raised garden beds.
The wood has been cut and laid to further increase the capacity of the garden for the coming year. The small expansion leaves more room for the dual purpose of this particular Victory Garden: a therapeutic place for veterans and others to garden and a way to supplement the dietary needs of recently homeless Bybee Lakes Hope Center residents. However, this is not the only organization VetRest works with, nor the only Victory Garden they are building in the Portland community.
VetRest was originally founded in Portland in 2016 by Major General Daniel York in response to mental health crises in the military. Originally, VetRest was built with the goal of providing a safe environment to mentor veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by encouraging them to work with soil in Therapeutic Gardens. Now VetRest has expanded to the Northeast, Southeast, Central and West regions.
The mission has also relaxed from providing specific guidance to a subset of individuals in difficulty, to being a welcoming place for veterans and civilians who wish to create community gardens. Those who need help with PTSD can always seek mentorship, but it’s more of a loose form, as it’s working in the ground and with others who are struggling with similar struggles that makes VetRest so valuable to volunteers and beneficiaries. York moved his base of operations to Colorado, but handed the reins of the Portland chapter to retired Lt. Commander Ron White.
VetRest is expanding by building a new Victory Garden in St. John’s, North Portland. Because this area is being prepared for future work in the spring, White invited Portland State Vanguard at the already established Victory Garden in Bybee Lakes.
Bybee Lakes was originally built as Wapato’s correctional facility, although it was never used. Now it has a train-themed playground tucked into one corner, a memorial garden for those who died homeless, and an ever-expanding garden growing out of the area that was once intentionally kept bare.
“This whole area, we call it the Residents’ Garden, looked like this,” White said, pointing to scrubland. “Empty land when we got here…that was one of the challenges of it all because it was once designed as a prison. It was designed with a lot of open space around it for a perimeter trail. These lights here are security lights and you can see the posts here, that’s where the fence was.” He pointed to a strip of concrete that separated low plants like vegetables from a larger, more extensive orchard.
Among the obviously practical plants were several marigolds, quite vibrant even in October. The flowers had multiple uses, both for pollinators and for gardeners.
“What it’s really about is creating a place of peace,” White said. Although the obvious practical benefits of having a food source are obvious, White said the garden was designed primarily for therapeutic purposes. When Avant-garde asked if that focus changed based on location, he said it changed based on who VetRest was working with right now.
Victory Gardens, smaller community gardens that grow supplemental foods, are unique to the Portland chapter. Although VetRest has run a larger-scale farm in Florida where veterans can go to train and take in more involved therapy, the vast majority of their gardens across the country aren’t focused on food production. It is only thanks to the invitations of community partners willing to meet the food needs of the earth that this aspect has developed. The original was built on land owned by the Bomber Restaurant on what had been a Victory Garden during World War II. When nonprofits or corporations offer VetRest a location to build a community garden, the idea that gardens can be useful for food security appeals to both VetRest and the many partners they have worked with locally at Portland: Helping Hands, Team Rubicon, OSU Master Gardeners, Rotary Club and many more.
“What we’re going to do is we’re going to start planting for next year,” White said. “We have a small greenhouse and this is going to help us make it a bit sturdier.” Like the six planters built with donated wood, VetRest is preparing to help the community by providing gardening tools and space and garden produce.