'Soil for the Soul' part of healthy living - Milwaukee VA Medical Center
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Milwaukee VA Medical Center


'Soil for the Soul' part of healthy living

Bob Hemke and Ericka Napoli

Bob Hemke works with Ericka Napoli of the Milwaukee VA Medical Center’s Whole Health Department in one of the raised garden beds near Building 43. The “Soil for the Soul” gardening group launched last week and continues each Thursday morning. For more information, call 414-384-2000, ext. 45114.

By David Walter
Tuesday, June 30, 2020

It’s more about the journey than the destination.

We hear that a lot, but it’s especially true when it comes to “Soil for the Soul,” the gardening group for Veterans hosted by the Milwaukee VA Medical Center’s Whole Health Department.

“I find it very therapeutic,” said Doris Wihowski, 59, who spent 13 years in the U.S. Army. “When you are working the earth, you feel connected with the Earth – watching things growing and knowing you’re a part of it.”

“It’s bringing people together – the camaraderie, the new friendships,” said Tom Le Moine, 72, who served in Vietnam in the late 1960s. “You can be any level in gardening. You don’t have to have any knowledge; you gain knowledge along the way.”

Wihowski and Le Moine are two members of the small group that convened June 25 for the first session of the season in the garden, located on the east side of Building 43 across from Lake Wheeler.

This is the second year for the group under the Whole Health banner, according to Whole Health occupational therapist Ericka Napoli, who leads the group.

Napoli, who has a background in horticulture, agreed that there are many benefits to gardening beside the outcome of producing vegetables or flowers.

“Gardening is really a mindful experience,” she said. “You’re present in the moment, focusing on gardening. You’re growing a product, beautifying a space. And it gets your body moving.

While many groups at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center have been suspended or gone virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the gardening group is able to meet by being outside and wearing masks. The group is also small – about six members – so proper distancing can be maintained.


Doris Wihowski

Veteran Doris Wihowski cleans up part of the garden outside Building 43 at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center as part of the “Soil for the Soul” gardening group.

Bob Hemke, 66, said he enjoys the group for a few reasons.

“Since my stroke, it’s something I can focus on,” he said. “It also gives me activity.”

Hemke often brings seeds from his thriving vegetable garden at his home. He also contributes to the group’s newsletter, “Fresh from the Garden.”

Le Moine, who completed the UW-Extension Master Gardener program in the 1990s, signed on with the group after being asked to speak about gardening.

“You’re outdoors,” he said, listing the program’s benefits. “It’s a physical activity, but only as physical as you make it. If you want to get down on your knees in the dirt, you can do that, or you can stand up and work with the raised beds.”

Those raised beds were constructed by Eagle Scout Jordan Cotter and his father, U.S. Air Force Veteran Brian Cotter.

The group grows vegetables, herbs and flowers, along with maintaining a butterfly garden and a handful of birdhouses.

And while the journey may be the most important thing about the group, the destination is beneficial as well.


Gardening supplies

Various plants and tools are ready to be put to use by the “Soil for the Soul” gardening group, hosted by the Whole Health Department at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center. The group meets each Thursday morning in the garden outside Building 43.

“We grow a lot of vegetables, and we give away a lot of them to Veterans who come to Building 43,” Napoli said. “We also do a cooking group with the produce and share a meal.”

For the first time this year, Napoli is seeking to quantify the positive outcomes of the program, asking the participants to track their pain and stress levels before and after taking part.

“We are looking at the change and how gardening can impact pain and stress,” she said, noting that a similar approach regarding Whole Health’s yoga and tai chi programs has shown positive results.

“It’s important and impactful,” she said. “We know it’s beneficial, but we want to show proof. We want to show evidence that gardening is purposeful and how it impacts you.”

Le Moine, who has been involved with gardening since he was a boy and has maintained a garden at his home for 48 years, said the benefits of the program are what brought him back.

“I think this is a very good program,” he said. “I think it’s well worth it. It keeps you busy and puts different thoughts in your head. People start thinking in a different way when they’re working in the garden.

“It’s like track – it’s an individual sport. You do what you want, depending on how you feel.”

The “Soil for the Soul” groups each Thursday at 9 a.m. Napoli also plans to set up virtual gardening sessions over Skype where participants can interact with gardening experts. For more information on the program, call the Whole Health Department at 414-384-2000, ext. 45114.



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