U.S. Navy veteran Camille Van Sant, founder of the nonprofit Operation Eco Vets, says working with the land has the power to heal. Her organization, which started as Green Path Veterans Farm, is located adjacent to the Easterseals Southwest Florida's Happiness House, a local school for the disabled, and grows produce for the school's students. It's also a place where veterans can find community, deal with traumatic experiences and work with their hands.
"This farm is a place where veterans who have undergone trauma can come and learn to nurture plants and create life—the antithesis of death, destruction and what they witness on the front lines," says Van Sant.
Since its inception, the nonprofit has grown to include a landscaping business, starting gardens for places like the All Star Children's Foundation, and a healing sensory garden for veterans and Easterseals students. The farm also sells micro-greens and medicinal herbs to the public.
It is open to the public on the second Saturday of every month for bootcamp gardening sessions, during which veterans and civilians can learn about sustainable farming, seeding, composting and more. Participants also enjoy a delicious lunch made from ingredients grown on the farm and learn about ways they can volunteer their time.
The farm also hosts days when veterans can come together to build relationships with others who understand the challenge of reentering society. In January, staff hosted a movie night, and outreach coordinator Lanard Smith says it was a big hit.
"When coming back from overseas and into society, we have to relearn how to live again and form connections," says Smith, an Army veteran. "Operation Eco Vets gives us the opportunity to do that."
Through Operation Eco Vets' volunteer and internship program, participants earn a wage and learn to become entrepreneurs. One veteran battling post-traumatic stress disorder came to work with Van Sant at the farm, and now owns a fishing charter business with his brother. Another female veteran from the Air Force started her own landscaping business after four months of interning at Operation Eco Vets. Her business is now successfully growing native and edible plants.
Operation Eco Vets is a small operation, with only four employees, including Van Sant, and about 15 volunteers each month, but the nonprofit receives grants from local organizations, like the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. In 2019, Operation Eco Vets earned $86,000 from a combination of donations, outreach events and its landscaping ventures. In 2020, the organization participated in the Giving Challenge, and raised $7,000. Since the pandemic hit, however, it has been difficult to grow financially and expand the way Van Sant would like.
"We are still trying to connect with the community, and receive any support we can," says Van Sant. "Eventually, we'd like to purchase more land and make an office space."
Stop by the farm, and you're likely to find veteran employees and volunteers weeding, watering and harvesting crops. During February, the farm is expecting to harvest lettuce, kale and collard greens, as well as longevity spinach and hibiscus. During the summer months, eggplant, peppers and tomatoes will grow. The farm's micro-greens and medicinal herbs will continue to be sold, as well.
"Growing food here teaches us to grow from our traumatic experiences," says Smith. "It's therapeutic, working out in the sunshine with plants, from seed to table, and being with friends."
Operation Eco Vets is located at Easterseals of Southwest Florida, 350 Braden Ave., Sarasota. For more info, click here.
From noon to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 13, the farm is hosting a Valentine's Day picnic. Picnic baskets ($25 for a basket for two or $45 for a family of four) will be available, with farm-inspired lunches, bubbly beverages and heart-shaped treats. Bring a blanket to eat the picnic outside. Order baskets by Wednesday, Feb. 10, by emailing [email protected].