Veterans Voice: Greenhouse a source of comfort, therapy for residents of vets home

·10 min read

On a Tuesday morning early in June, medical staff will escort residents of the Rhode Island Veterans Home in Bristol to work in their new greenhouse for the first time.

Construction on the 16-by-24-foot facility, consisting of rigid polycarbonate panels supported by a steel framework, was completed in the spring of 2020.

“Just in time for COVID,” laments John Twomey, the 61-year-old retired East Providence police officer who coordinated the project. He has been the University of Rhode Island Master Gardener project leader at the Veterans Home since 2016.

“Because of COVID we’ve never been able to keep the greenhouse open long enough to establish any continuity,” said Paul Murgo, administrator of the Veterans Home. “But now, everyone is on board, and we should be ready to go. We want to get residents involved. For example, they could plant seedlings in their rooms and then later take them out to the greenhouse.”

URI Master Gardener John Twomey mulches plant beds at the Rhode Island Veterans Home in Bristol.
URI Master Gardener John Twomey mulches plant beds at the Rhode Island Veterans Home in Bristol.

The new facility will allow residents to work inside year-round, assisted by URI Master Gardeners. “When it’s 75 to 80 degrees inside the greenhouse in the middle of January, that’s a nice way to escape a cold and snowy winter day,” said Twomey.

Murgo agrees. “Next winter we hope to use that greenhouse to get our plants ready for the spring.”

“We are growing plants right now,” said Twomey. “Our plan is to start getting veterans in the greenhouse for a few hours one day a week, then expand as staffing and volunteer coverage allows. Baby steps.”

Twomey has between 15 and 20 volunteers actively working on this project.

“They really are a dedicated group,” added Murgo. “And their work is spread throughout the complex.”

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New Veterans Home has raised beds for gardening

The new Veterans Home has six distinct “neighborhoods,” each of which includes two cottages housing 16 residents each. The two cottages share a common fenced-in courtyard, or patio. The first thing the Master Gardener volunteers did in 2017 was construct raised beds for vegetable and flower gardening in each patio. They also landscaped other portions of the patio area, with plants and materials donated by URI.

“Today, we have a couple of volunteers assigned to each patio,” explained Twomey, “In addition to the volunteers working in the greenhouse.”

Twomey’s wife, Virginia, also a Master Gardener, is responsible for one of the patios.

“There’s a lot of veteran contact there because that’s where they live,” he explained. “When we’re working in the patio they often come out, perhaps for advice on plants. Or they might want to work in the raised beds.” One veteran recently put in 32 tulip and daffodil bulbs.

Richard Shorrock, of Westport, Massachusetts, is a volunteer and a Vietnam-era veteran himself.

“Recently we helped a resident repot a house plant that he enjoys in his room. His enthusiastic appreciation made my day!” said Shorrock.

Twomey was born and raised in East Providence. He joined the Army right after graduating from East Providence High School in 1979, then spent three years as an MP in Hawaii. After leaving the military he went to work for the City of East Providence, and entered the police academy in 1989. He retired in March 2010.

Twomey had been a gardener since childhood, and both he and his wife signed up for the Master Gardener program. When URI asked for a volunteer to pick up the pieces at the Veterans Home in 2016, he raised his hand.

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Gardening is therapeutic

Gardening has been used as a soothing therapy since ancient times. The recorded use of horticulture to calm the senses dates as far back as 2000 BC, according to the National Library of Medicine.

“Around 500 BC, the Persians began creating gardens to please all of the senses by combining beauty, fragrance, music (flowing water) and cooling temperatures.”

Ten years ago, a study titled “What Is the Evidence to Support the Use of Therapeutic Gardens for the Elderly?” concluded: “Horticulture therapy employs plants and gardening activities … and could be utilized to improve the quality of life of the worldwide aging population, possibly reducing costs for long-term, assisted living and dementia unit residents.”

In 2020 Twomey received the Outstanding Master Gardener Award.

The Journal reported at the time, “He led what was the ‘largest and most ambitious community project ever organized by the Master Gardeners, replacement of the 1,500-square-foot greenhouse at the Rhode Island Veterans Home in Bristol.”

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Master Gardener's oldest community project destroyed

When the new Veterans Home opened in October 2017, an important element was left out of the state-of-the art complex.

There was no replacement for the old, wood-framed greenhouse and 25 gardens that had been part of the old home.

“That was the oldest community project conducted by the URI Master Gardener Program, and in fact was our only project that received a national award,” said Rudi Hempe, one of the leaders of that initiative.

Volunteers were "heartbroken that their work had been destroyed," said Twomey. “The gardens had represented thousands of hours of work over 25 years.”

“The wooden hoop house and 25 gardens [they] had tended carefully for decades were cleared away during construction,” wrote former Journal veterans columnist Mary Talbot in December 2019.

“Gardening was always a favorite calming and therapeutic activity for the veterans who resided in Bristol. It was part of their identity.”

Twomey credits much of the project’s success to Hempe, whom he calls his mentor. Hempe, himself a previous Outstanding Master Gardener Award winner, brought in volunteers and was crucial on the fundraising side.

Hempe was secretary of the Master Gardener Foundation of RI Inc., the fundraising arm of the URI Master Gardener program.

“John approached me about a grant to fund the new greenhouse,” Hempe said. The idea was appealing, especially since Hempe was himself a combat veteran, having served as an Army adviser in Vietnam.

The Independent newspaper described him in August 2021 as "a South County institution who also spent over a half-century of editing, writing and managing local newspapers from North Kingstown to Charlestown and communities in between.”

Hempe,  82, lives in Narragansett. He is a Master Gardener Hall of Fame member who has volunteered some 20,000 hours since the current century began to “build an understanding of gardens, plants and anything that grows in soil.”

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Champlin Foundation grant turns dream into reality

The Master Gardener Foundation applied to the Champlin Foundation and was awarded a $95,000 grant in December 2018. Because of unforeseen steel and transportation price increases, more money was needed to complete the project.

Hempe, Twomey and their team raised an additional $32,500 by soliciting veterans groups, police organizations and the general public.

They were also able to convince companies such as the Cardi Corporation, National Grid, and mulch supplier ELJ Inc., as well as the Town of Bristol, to provide In-kind or discounted services.

The grading, foundation and other elements of construction (such as plumbing and electrical) required licensed contractors, several of whom donated their labor or worked at reduced rates. The building itself, however, was erected by about 20 volunteers.

According to Hempe, much of that work was done by the Master Gardener Program support group, known as Rudi's Rangers, many of whom are also veterans.

“The greenhouse arrived in thousands of parts,” recalled Hempe. “It was like a giant Erector set."

The building was completed in November 2019, and Twomey added the utilities that winter. “We got our occupancy permit in May of 2020, then COViD shut everything down.”

Hempe concludes, “The bottom line is to offer residents some therapeutic activity, and give them an alternative to watching TV. Gardening fosters conversations, increases camaraderie and can provide some education.”

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Calendar: Veterans events

Monday, 7 p.m.: North Kingstown American Legion Post 12 meeting, Beachwood House, 44 Beach St., North Kingstown. Contact Steve Sharkey, (401) 714-8872.

Tuesday, noon to 5 p.m.: VFW blood drive with the Rhode Island Blood Center at VFW Post 8955, Main Hall, 113 Beach St., Westerly. Appointment necessary. Visit ribc.org/giveblood to book. Walk-ins only accepted if safe spacing permits. Eat, hydrate, bring identification with you. Masks required. If you prefer to donate at a blood center closer to home you may do so; mention Sponsor Code 0902.

Wednesday, 10 a.m., Annual wreath-laying ceremony, The Garden of Heroes, South Lawn, Rhode Island State House, 82 Smith St., Providence.  RSVP to Grace Sneesby, (401) 222-1445, or grace.sneesby@ltgov.ri.gov.

Thursday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.;  Annual virtual career fair hosted by the Enlisted Association of the National Guard. This is the nation’s largest event of its kind for the National Guard Community. Log in from your phone, tablet or computer to access nationwide employment opportunities and interactive hiring rooms. Get your résumé seen by employers across the United States. To register, go to eangus.org/national-guard-community-virtual-career-fair/  or email eangus@eangus.org.

Friday, 10 a.m., Carlo Lafazia Memorial Rededication Ceremony, Eagle Square Park, corner of Admiral Street and Douglas Avenue. The City of Providence, led by Councilor David Salvatore, will rededicate the Lafazia Square Monument, a chiseled stone block that was vandalized and knocked off its foundation last June. Carlo Lafazia was a Providence-born World War I veteran killed in action during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on Oct. 11, 1918, one month before the Armistice.

Friday to Monday, May 30, Boots on the Ground for Heroes Memorial at Fort Adams, Newport, organized by Operation Stand Down RI. Free admission and parking. A patriotic display of more than 7,000 boots will honor service members who have fallen since 9/11. On Friday, starting at 8 a.m., the memorial will open to the public. Hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday through Sunday, and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Memorial Day. There will be a special ceremony for Rhode Island’s Gold Star Families to place the boots representing their fallen loved ones at 6:30 p.m. Saturday. On Sunday from 5 to 6 p.m. the 88th Army Band, Rhode Island National Guard will present a patriotic concert.

Monday, May 30, Military Police Regimental Association Memorial March. Park at Reynolds’ Memorial Field, 498 South Rd., Exeter. Meet at 7:45 a.m., march begins 8 a.m. and ends at the Rhode Island Veterans Memorial Cemetery. There will be a brief ceremony and then participants will be bused back to their cars. Contact Maj. Sean Fitzpatrick, (401) 275-4420 or sean.w.fitzpatrick3.mil@army.mil

Monday, May 30, 8:30 a.m., Special Forces Association Memorial Day Ceremony. Rhode Island Chapter 48 members and guests should assemble at the Special Forces Monument, Rhode Island Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery, 301 South County Trail, Exeter. Contact Maj. Tom Duffney (USA Ret) at tmduffney@gmail.com.

Monday, May 30, 9 a.m., North Kingstown Memorial Day Commemoration. Veterans’ Memorial Park across from Town Hall, 80 Boston Neck Road. Parade will start at 10 a.m. with the route though Wickford Village onto Tower Hill Road to the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial at Elm Grove Cemetery, 960 Tower Hill Rd. Wreath laying ceremonies are expected to begin at 11 a.m. Contact Bill Pennoyer, (401) 398-2358.

Monday, May 30, 10 a.m.: South Kingstown Memorial Day Parade, sponsored by South Kingstown VFW – Washington County Post 916. Kicks off on Holly Street in Wakefield, then turns south onto Main Street, and concludes on High Street at Saugatucket Park, where a brief memorial ceremony will take place. Program will culminate with a wreath laying at the Saugatucket Veterans Monument and a wreath toss into the Saugatucket River, followed by an Honor Guard Gun Salute and Taps. Following the ceremony, the public is invited to Elks Lodge 1899, 60 Belmont St., Wakefield, for refreshments. Contact Steve Stewart, (401) 789-1657 or steve0stewart@outlook.com.

To report the outcome of a previous activity, or to add an event to our calendar, email details (including a contact name and phone number/ email address) to veteranscolumn@ providencejournal.com.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Veterans Voice: Greenhouse a source of comfort, therapy for residents of vets hom