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June 2017


The healing garden: Veterans' view
Cynthia Eaton


FA volunteers at the VA Garden Project
FA Executive Vice President Sean Tvelia (center, kneeling, in red) said the Garden Project "highlights what a union is and does: faculty, administrators and students rolling up their sleeves and working together to improve our community and the lives of others."

"Gardens are healing. These residents need spiritual healing as much as physical healing. This is something tangible, something real, that heals."

FA member Jamie Aridas is a full-time professional assistant (PA) in the veterans resource center at the Grant Campus. She joined over three dozen volunteers on Saturday, April 29, at the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center to reinvigorate the garden behind Building 92, the residential care facility.

Aridas was volunteering with her counterpart at the Ammerman Campus, Elyse Quirk, who noted, "This is a long-term care facility at the VA, so most of these residents will not be going home. The garden gives them something pleasant to view out their windows." With the Northport VA receiving a review of four out of five stars in the June 30, 2016, update of VA ratings, many residents do tend to stay, so Quirk is quite right about the importance of doing this "little something to help improve their quality of life."

Leading TEAM FA was Vice President Sean Tvelia, who spoke of the importance of working in this way with students. "As college faculty we consistently work to motivate our students both in and outside of our classrooms. As community college faculty we teach our students the value of not only doing well in their coursework but also the importance of being involved and taking an active role within society."

He continued, "To be successful educators we cannot just talk the talk, we also need to walk the walk. That means encouraging students when they become excited or involved within our classrooms or subject areas and also providing support when they need us to assist with initiatives that mean a lot to them—especially when those initiatives are selfless acts designed to improve the lives of others."

Tvelia pointed out that we were also volunteering side by side with college administrators like Grant Campus Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Hector Sepulveda and College Director of Veterans Affairs Shannon O'Neill; FA members Ina Casali, Jamie Aridas, Elyse Quirk and Frank Valenzisi; and the students who serve in each campus Student Veterans Association (SVA) club. "The Garden Project is a perfect example of not only aiding in the success of our students but also helping our brothers and sisters who gave much, much more to help others. It highlights what a union is and does: faculty, administrators and students rolling up their sleeves and working together to improve our community and the lives of others."

FA members pose with administrators and students at the Garden Project
FA officers Sean Tvelia and Cynthia Eaton joined FA members Ina Casali, Jamie Aridas, Elyse Quirk and Frank Valenzisi and the president of each of the three campus Student Veteran Associations for the Garden Project at the VA Hospital in Northport on April 29.

The three presidents of the campus SVAs were equally happy to do this good work. Darien Silvestri, president of the Grant SVA, said, "We are recreating the garden from last year so residents have a better view because some of them don't get a lot of visitors." Silvestri noted that an additional benefit of the garden is that it entices residents to want to come outside to sit near the garden, which is good for their motor skills.

Vincent Miller, Eastern SVA president, got up early on that fine Saturday morning to drive all the way from Westhampton Beach to Northport (an 80-mile round trip) so he could participate in this project. "These residents don't go out on day trips," he explained, "so we are bringing some beauty to them since we have an obligation to give back to people who can't do for themselves." Having served 15 years in the Army, Miller is now active with VFW Post 5350 in Westhampton Beach and says he agrees with Tvelia. "We do lots of activities with local schools so the kids can see why it's important to do these things. I'm walking the walk. We all should."

"I'm a soldier. I like to serve—and I really like to serve those who have served us!" asserted Matteo Uribe Cervantes, president of the Ammerman SVA. A disabled vet who was a gunner in the Army Infantry 101 Airborne, Cervantes said, "The garden symbolizes regrowth and renewal, and we are committed to coming out to remind the residents that they are not forgotten."

That kind of healing message is precisely what the FA aims to accomplish with participation in community outreach projects like these.