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UGA Master Gardeners bring purpose, sustainability to men dealing with addiction

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For people dealing with substance abuse, establishing a healthy routine and lifestyle without triggers can be one of the biggest challenges. With the help of University of Georgia Master Gardener Extension Volunteers, one impactful organization is creating a path to recovery from addiction that incorporates an age-old sustainable practice — planting seeds.

Tucked into the mountains of north Georgia, Victory Home is a faith-based drug and alcohol rehabilitation program that has been operating since 1959. Renowned for its impact on the local community, one of the core values in Victory Home’s model for success is harvesting healthy, locally grown food and plants.

The mission of Victory Home is to feed the minds, bodies, spirits and souls of the men in the program. Engaging residents in a program where they can gain skills and an appreciation for where their food comes from is an important piece in their recovery, according to staff at Victory Home. Showing the men that someone truly cares about them is yet another key to helping them make their journey back into becoming healthy members of society.

With the organization’s aging 30-by 100-foot greenhouse and many of the surrounding garden plots in need of major renovation and housekeeping, the Headwaters Chapter of Master Gardeners — consisting of experienced gardeners from Rabun, Habersham and White counties — rose to the challenge.

“At first, we started collecting plants from our own personal gardens and from people we knew just to have a place to start,” said Kathy Booker, a retired nurse and the driving force behind the master gardeners' involvement at the facility. “Without consistent management of the greenhouse, it became somewhat of a storage unit over time. Our goal was to change that and make it functional again.”

Booker and a group of Master Gardener volunteers submitted the official revitalization proposal for the Victory Home Greenhouse Project in 2019, seeking resources and guidance from the Headwaters Master Gardeners. For the group, it was a chance to give back to their community through their passion for gardening.

“This project is a unique opportunity for our Master Gardeners to engage in hands-on learning through a direct connection with our horticulture specialists,” said Steven Patrick, Habersham County Cooperative Extension coordinator. “They take that knowledge and do their best to utilize the available resources to produce food and landscape plant materials to raise money for Victory Home, for local scholarships, and for community landscape projects.”

Laying the foundation

Agents and volunteers met with Victory Home to set expectations for the project. Mirroring the mission of Victory Home, the goal of the greenhouse project is to provide food and education to improve the nutritional status of the residents now and in the future.

The first step was to clean the greenhouse and to prepare for their first fundraising event — a wreath-making class. Using the seed money from the class, the group restored the greenhouse to active production, making basic improvements to the greenhouse structure, including repairing benches and water lines, and sealing holes in the plastic. With assistance from Extension agents, they also stabilized a shade cloth to reduce the intensity of the sun for crop production.

The volunteers used the help of Extension agents in surrounding counties to conduct soil tests and borrow equipment to begin the initial planting process. With a foundation laid for growth, the next step was developing a program to mentor and educate the men in the facility.

Planning a sustainable program

“We decided that, beyond the renovations, we would like to develop a lasting program that incorporated the residents and administration at Victory Home,” said Booker. “After speaking with them and getting initial feedback, they were all in agreement and we worked together to develop a process in which they could work alongside us.”

A primary focus of the program was seed education, soil maintenance and planting techniques. Every Monday, Master Gardener volunteers worked at the greenhouse planting, watering, scouting for plant diseases and insects, and conducting general maintenance. Several residents joined in the garlic and seed planting process.  Many also participated in growing shiitake mushrooms on logs. Although there were routine activities, a major focus was on education and personal connection.

“The educational component was always a main goal for us in starting the collaboration,” said John Scaduto, Rabun County Extension coordinator. “We wanted to provide skills for the residents that they can take and utilize beyond the six-month program.”

After a successful launch year in 2019, many of the operations were slowed or cut due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Booker hopes that normal operations can resume in the coming months.

The fruits of their labor

Although the food production has been minimal during the pandemic, the greenhouse project provides financial assistance through plant sales. Major funding for Victory Homes comes from the on-site thrift store and private donations. The proceeds fund the operation of the greenhouse and the daily activities of the facility. The funds also help to provide full and partial scholarships for the men who may not otherwise be able to afford the Victory Home program.

A total of $5,200 was raised for Victory Home through plant sales and donations in the first year. Shiitake mushroom logs established during the first year will produce about $600 in food or sales for the men during their five-year life cycle. The vegetable plots are expected to produce approximately $1,800 in produce over the three years of active production. Multiple cover crops have also been planted to help build the soil.

“Victory Home loves the contribution and progress that the Master Gardeners have made already,” said Booker. “They love having us there in the gardens and at the greenhouse because it was something that was sitting in disarray and we have brought it back to life.”

For more information on the UGA Master Gardener Extension Volunteer Program, visit extension.uga.edu. To learn more about Headwaters Master Gardeners, visit their site at headwatersmastergardeners.org. To learn more about or donate to Victory Home, visit victoryhome.org

Sean Montgomery is a public relations coordinator for the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
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