Crystal and Rob Timmons met in 1999 through a mutual friend. “We just really enjoyed each other’s company and immediately had a close bond,” Crystal explains of those early days. “We balance each other out like yin and yang.” The couple married in 2005 and not long after, Rob joined the military – serving as a cook in the Army and later deployed to Afghanistan where he worked on the Special Intelligence security team.
“Rob came back a different person,” says Crystal. “He was medically discharged in 2012 having been declared ‘not fit for duty’ and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He had suffered multiple injuries including a brain injury.”
Crystal was not only the caregiver for Rob; she was also caring for their daughter, Hailey. In February of 2012, the family moved to St. Augustine and Crystal quickly realized that the area didn’t have the services that Rob needed, so she started searching for a holistic healing approach. Having grown up in Kashi Ashram, an interfaith spiritual community based in Sebastian, Florida, Crystal focused on getting herself healthy, so she could help her family.
“I got back into yoga – really took the reins and made some changes,” she says. “I’ve always been a natural caregiver and realized that I needed to serve myself first before I could serve others.”
Crystal got Rob involved in yoga and found Honoring the Brave, a local nonprofit organization run by David Hernandez that gets military and first responders out on the water fishing, kayaking, or stand-up paddle boarding. She also started planting fruits, vegetables, flowers, and herbs in their backyard.
It didn’t take long for Crystal to realize that she was out of her element when it came to gardening, so she enrolled in continuing education programs at First Coast Technical College (FCTC) focusing on Nursery Management, Horticulture Science, and Landscape Design and Installation. She also enrolled in a Permaculture course at Kashi Ashram called Sustainable Kashi, an interactive demonstration program dedicated to teaching sustainable environmental practices – commuting once a month to the Treasure Coast for courses.
“I knew that I wanted to find a community service project to get involved in,” says Crystal. “It was either that or create my own. I wanted to continue to heal ourselves, my family, but I also didn’t want it to be all about us.”
Crystal quickly discovered the healing power of horticulture and wanted to share the importance of connecting to the Earth with others. As thus, Veteran Garden Project was created. An all-volunteer community service project that provides opportunities for veterans to heal through nature, Veteran Garden Project was started nearly three years ago and became a 501(c)(3) in April of 2019. The nonprofit focuses on garden therapy, socialization, education, positive and healthy attitudes, and teaching new skills through a renewed sense of purpose.
“I had the vision and set the goals, but there are so many people who helped make this possible,” Crystal explains of Veteran Garden Project’s board members and volunteers. “We have promised to help six veterans in 2019 and hope to increase that to 36 families in 2020-2021. There is a lot of work to be done.”
The mission of Veteran Garden Project is to support the local healing veteran community, through cultivation and production of individual organic gardens and garden therapy. Crystal, Rob, and others offer garden installations for veterans as well as gardening meetups, free workshops, and events.
The organization’s current focus is helping veterans install a 4×8 raised garden at their homes by working with military families to plan a custom-designed edible and medicinal landscape complete with a worm tube compost container, tools, and seeds. Veteran Garden Project will also facilitate wheelchair-accessible bed options for veterans who need them.
“One of the veterans that we’ve helped is a Purple Heart Recipient named Jimmy,” Rob explains from the couple’s backyard garden. “We’ve seen the project give him back his spark and give him a purpose. It’s something that I can relate to first-hand. Putting your hands in the dirt gives you patience, nurture and sense of giving back to the Earth.”
As they expand their organization, Veteran Garden Project is presently seeking community donors and sponsors, volunteers, and donations.