The birds flew over VetRest’s Bybee Lakes Victory Garden on Oct. 15, 2022, and the tomatoes hung heavy on the vines. It appeared to be the last harvest for the garden, which is built and maintained by VetRest, a non-profit organization that provides wellness and mentorship for veterans in safe supportive environments on land used by the Bybee Lake Hope Center for transitional housing. Chainsaws rang out in the air that day, as a large pile of wood donated by Portland’s rotary club was intended to be used to build six fresh raised garden beds.
The wood was cut and laid to grow the garden’s capacity a little bit more for the upcoming year. The small expansion allows more room for the dual purposes of this particular Victory Garden: a therapeutic place for veterans and others to garden and a way to supplement the food needs for the recently homeless residents of Bybee Lakes Hope Center. However, this is not the only organization that VetRest works with, nor is this the only Victory Garden they are building in the Portland community.
VetRest was originally founded in Portland in 2016 by Major General Daniel York as a response to mental health crises in the military. Originally, VetRest was built with the focus of providing a safe environment to coach those veterans who struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) by encouraging them to work with the soil in therapeutic gardens. Now, VetRest has expanded to the northeast, southeast, central and west regions.
The mission has also loosened from providing specific coaching to a subset of individuals with struggles, to being a welcoming place for both veterans and civilians who want to build community gardens. Those who need help with PTSD can still request mentorship, but it is more of a loose form, since it’s the working in the soil and with other people of similar struggles that makes VetRest so valuable for the volunteers and beneficiaries. York has shifted his base of operations to Colorado, but he handed the Portland chapter’s reins over to retired Lieutenant-Commander Ron White.
VetRest is expanding by building a new Victory Garden in St. John’s in North Portland. Because that area is just being prepped for future work in the spring, White invited Portland State Vanguard to the already-established Victory Garden in Bybee Lakes.
Bybee Lakes was originally built as a Wapato Correctional Facility, although it was never used. Now it has a train-themed playground tucked in the corner, a memorial garden for those who died houseless and an ever-expanding garden growing over the area that once was kept bare intentionally.
“All of this area, we call it the residents’ garden, was looking like that,” White said, pointing at a scrubland. “Empty land when we first got here…that was one of the challenges of this whole thing because this was formerly designed as a prison. It was designed with lots of open space around it for a perimeter trail. These lights here are security lighting and you can see the poles here, this is where the fence was.” He indicated a concrete strip that separated the low growing plants like vegetables from a taller, more spread-out orchard.
Dotted among the obviously practical plants were several marigolds, rather vibrant even in October. The flowers served multiple purposes, both for pollinators and something the gardeners could enjoy.
“What the vision is really about is creating a place of peace,” White said. Although the obvious practical benefits of having a food source was evident, White said that the garden was designed primarily for therapeutic purposes. When Vanguard asked if that focus had shifted given the location, he said it evolved based on who VetRest was working with at the moment.
The Victory Gardens, smaller community gardens that grow supplemental food, are unique to the Portland chapter. Although VetRest has run a larger-scale farm in Florida that veterans can go work out and have more involved therapy integrated, the vast majority of their gardens across the country do not focus on food generation. It is only because of invitations from community partners willing to provide the land with food needs that this aspect developed. The original one was built in land belonging to the Bomber Restaurant on what had been a Victory Garden during World War II. When nonprofits or companies offer a location for VetRest to build a community garden, the idea that the gardens can be useful for food security appeals to both VetRest and the many partners they have worked with local to Portland: Helping Hands, Team Rubicon, OSU Master Gardeners, the rotary club and many more.
“What we’re gonna do is we’re gonna start planting for next year,” White said. “We got a little greenhouse and that’s gonna help us make it a little sturdier.” Like the six planters built with donated lumber, VetRest is preparing to assist the community by providing the tools and space to garden and the produce from the gardens.