Today, in honor of Veterans Day, we take you to an out-of-the-way story. WUWM discovered a group quietly trying to help homeless veterans find grounding in an urban garden.
Howard Hinterthuer raises a heavy sheet of plastic to reveal vines loaded with “still ripening” tomatoes.
“I had to figure out some way to trellis them up and actually erect these things over the top. So we had a little group one weekend and we figured out how to do it, a system that would work,” Hinterthuer says
This makeshift “green house” came to life on Milwaukee’s west side when the weather started turning cold. It’s 15 degrees warmer inside.
His backyard parcel is tucked behind the home base of the Center for Veterans Issues, or CVI.
Its small staff provides social services and other programs designed to help vets come out on the other side of depression and addictions and other obstacles. Hinterthuer believe the garden can help.
“Put a bunch of guys in a room with a psychologist and say, talk about your feelings; it’s not going to happen, but if you get out in a garden and you start doing stuff together, before long, they start to talk to each other,” Hinterthuer says.
He’s seen it happen.
72 veterans live right next door in a three-story complex called VETS Place Central.
They’ve served at different times, in various conflicts, but all the men have one thing in common, they’ve been homeless. Hinterthuer says as a few planted and tended peppers and cabbage, gradually, oh so gradually, other vets ventured over to help.
“And to me, if one person goes down one side of a row with a hoe, and I go down the other side, by the time we get to the other end, we’re half way into their life story. All the elements are good; it’s good for me too; it’s been good for Sims,” Hinterthuer says.
He’s referring to William Sims.
Both men are Vietnam War veterans.
Sims served in the 101st Airborne Division.
“Second 3-27, was in the Infantry. So I was over there nine months before I got wounded and I spent about four months in Japan recuperating,” Sims says.
Sims was only 21 when he returned to Milwaukee, and calls himself one of the lucky ones - he had a support system.
His uncle sent him to help build a house.
Sims says he still remembers the rage he felt at the time; but the work, and his uncle watching out for him, began to have a calming effect.
Sims says another oasis was his mother’s garden.
“It was always tranquil, you know. She’d always be laughing and joking while we were out there working. So I always equated that with tranquility,” Sims says.
Sims planted the first garden here in 1995. Just three years ago, he dubbed it the Organic Therapy Project.
Tending it was a new experience for Quin.
The quiet 41-year old vet has lived - off and on – in the transitional housing next door.
The army medic on medical discharge admits this is the first garden he’d ever stepped foot in.
“If it helps one person reach another day, I think it’s done it’s job. You know, it helped me. We put a lot of hours back here,” Quin says.
It’s difficult to put in words, but walking into this small well-tended garden, even at the chilly end of its season, you feel as though the ground is somehow hallowed.
Perhaps it’s the quiet.
Master gardener – of course William Sims would never accept the title - is determined to expand what’s happening here on Wells Street.
“Galvanize that camaraderie and something a little bigger than themselves and something that you can see and you can measure,” Sims says
Sims along with Howard Hintertheur and other volunteers have their sights on cultivating another acre nearby.
They know it can produce not only healthy crops, but also a connection with community, and confidence among veterans.