VALLEY — “I can’t stop wars and there will always be soldiers, but I can do this little bit,” declared Kym Sanchez, founder and president of Not Forgotten Outreach (NFO) as she gazed out at 10,000 garlic plants growing tall.
This garlic and other produce finds its way onto Taos community tables such as the Farmhouse Café school lunch and garden program, which provides school children with approximately 300-500 pounds of fresh vegetables a week in 2016.
Sanchez was “NCIOC” of Casualty Assistants for the Army, a daunting task without the added heartbreak of finding her beloved husband incoming for body preparation to be returned home. Sanchez has never fully recovered from this experience and wanted to provide a respite and healing place for veterans and their families to come, feel safe, feel celebrated and to get involved in the healing aspects of farming and nature.
The mission of Not Forgotten Outreach in their Veteran Beginning Farmers Program is to create an open, relaxed environment, thereby allowing veterans to learn and work together to overcome physical and mental barriers, giving returning veterans the opportunity to reintegrate gracefully and productively into America’s rural communities.
This past weekend members of the fledgling San Luis Valley “Veteran Fields” Veteran to Farmer project took an excursion down to Taos to see firsthand what a successful Veteran Support Farm looks like. In the San Luis Valley the partnership between the Veterans Coalition of the SLV and San Luis Valley Local Foods Coalition is getting off to a great start.
The idea, supported by the Colorado Health Foundation, is to build capacity for a Veteran to Farmer program in the SLV that supports veterans moving into agriculture as they work to reintegrate into society – a feat that can be challenging. Veterans often come back from service with a high incidence of unemployment, social dislocation, loss of a sense of purpose and low self-esteem. These, with or without other physical and mental disabilities, often lead to profound discouragement, frustration, and isolation. The Veteran Fields farm connection may be as simple as providing a quiet green space and a bench under a shade tree, providing internships at local farms, all the way to helping a veteran launch their own dream agricultural business.
Not Forgotten Outreach sits in a bucolic Taos neighborhood under the verdant vista of Taos Mountain. Chickens peck around and ducks waddle around while Henrietta, the friendliest chicken by far, hangs out with the people gathered around the patio. Front and center of the whole operation is larger than life executive director Don Peters who is actually large in life. He is six foot six inches to be exact; that is before his service back injury and subsequent surgical mishap that left him paralyzed from the waist down.
Peters spins tales with the SLV visitors and various veteran guests while playfully telling “Green Shirt,” an AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps Team (NCCC) in service, what his next task is. The NCCC crew is gaining many skills in food production, construction and animal care. It is obvious that Green Shirt and the rest look up to Peters as a mentor and a genuine cool guy. Peters brought the NCCC crew of 12 to the community to focus on Not Forgotten Outreach while putting in time with other community groups like Taos Habitat for Humanity. NCCC teams complete 6-8 weeks of intensive national service doing projects proposed by community sponsors like Not Forgotten Outreach that provide them shelter and food and an amazing experience.
The use of 10 NCCC crew members, who provide community service to NFO for 12 weeks, and NFO acquired policies are just some of the tips garnered by the visiting team from the SLV. They also learned that the community wants to support veterans – and it is important to give them a way to do it. Another important lesson is that veterans have many skill sets taught and exercised in the military, skills like leadership and management and care and handling of expensive and technical equipment and many other specialties; skills that are often disregarded by civilians in the community.
Veteran Fields is funded by the Colorado Health Foundation to mobilize the SLV Veteran to Farmers project to sustainability. This includes supporting aspiring veteran farmers like Jen Ballentine as they rebuild their post-service lives. Jen, a veteran of the Gulf War and a homesteader is gearing up her meat bird production near Mosca with a Veteran Fields mini-grant.
Jayne Salisbury of the Women Veterans of the SLV hopes to work with Homelake Veterans Center near Monte Vista to create a Victory Garden there.
Keith Smith, an Iraqi Freedom veteran, is spearheading the care of a quarter acre at the Rio Grande Farm Park (RGFP) in Alamosa.
Finally, garden coordinator Abe Rosenberg has opened the Valleybound Garden (VB) a project of Conejos Clean Water in Antonito to veterans as well. Both Smith and Rosenberg are actively looking for veterans to come join in the growing efforts at the Rio Grande Farm Park and ValleyBound Garden to experience camaraderie with other veterans as well as the healing aspects of agriculture.
Not Forgotten Outreach put some wind beneath the wings of the SLV Veteran to Farmers project, ‘Veteran Fields,’ and all their partners. The full complement of partners includes Conejos Clean Water, ASU Community Partnerships, La Puente Outreach, the Women Veterans of the SLV, the SLV Local Foods Coalition, the Veterans Coalition of the SLV, the Rio Grande Farm Park and the Valley Roots Food Hub. Veteran Fields is very grateful to NFO for the experience, mentorship and hospitality as Fields learns from some of the best.
For more information or to get involved in Veteran Fields call Project Director Keith Smith at 719-850-8703 or email to [email protected] or call the SLVLFC at 719-937-2319 or email at [email protected] Website www.vcslv.info/volunteer.
For more information about Not Forgotten Outreach in Taos, like them on FaceBook or email Don Peters at [email protected]