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Hundreds of volunteers refresh gardens, outdoor areas at Yountville Veterans Home

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YOUNTVILLE — Once a year, teams of volunteers stream into the Veterans Home of California to freshen up gardens, outdoor spaces and seating for the roughly 580 military veterans and spouses who call the campus home.

A campaign that began five years ago resumed Wednesday morning, as some 450 people joined forces on a host of improvements to the grounds.

Crafting planter boxes for vegetable gardens, building fences and a chicken coop, refinishing chairs and benches, or even nailing together the frames of three new houses, the volunteers found ways to make the campus more livable and inviting for those who call it home.

The latest volunteer event continued a long-term effort to make the outdoors more accessible, according to a spokesperson for one of the project’s main planners.

“One big need is how to get vets out of their rooms and into communal activities,” said Gabriel Sneller of the Home Depot Foundation, the charitable wing of the hardware store chain. “We’ve created a new bocce ball court, we’ve built benches, ADA (compliant) tables, Adirondack chairs. We’ve landscaped, planted trees, created raised-bed gardens for crops that go back to the home.”

Since 2017, the state Department of Veterans Affairs, which operates the Yountville Veterans Home and seven others, has worked with the Home Depot hardware chain’s charitable wing to bring volunteers from the company, CalVet and others into the property.

This year’s Yountville team included about 380 volunteers from Home Depot, 60 team leaders from Solano-Napa Habitat for Humanity, and five members of the Tug McGraw Foundation, according to Tracy Moresi-Lorentzen, a volunteer engagement manager for Habitat.

A special focus of Wednesday’s projects was the improvement of two campus gardens the Veterans Home treats not only as open space but as therapeutic areas, where residents can gain exercise, fresh air and the chance to socialize.

One plot, the Heroes’ Garden, is overseen by Veterans Home staff and provides individual plots for produce and flowers. The other, the Brain Food Garden, is supervised by the Tug McGraw Foundation, which operates on the campus and serves those with traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Wednesday’s volunteer work also included the creation of shade structures at the home’s bus stop, bocce court and independent living section – both to protect residents in hot or inclement weather and create more comfortable areas for socializing, according to Veterans Home spokesperson Joshua Kiser.

Some of the work at the Veterans Home will benefit three households across the border in Solano County.

On a vacant parking lot, several squads of orange-shirted volunteers slung tool pouches around their waists as they assembled lengths of three-by-six lumber into wall-size frames. Afterward, the wooden skeletons would be trucked to Fairfield to become the walls, partitions and roofs of a trio of homes to be built by Habitat for Humanity, the nonprofit devoted to creating housing for lower-income residents. (Although the houses will not be deed-restricted to veterans, Habitat’s Solano-Napa branch hopes to find a former service member to occupy one of them, according to Moresi-Lorentzen of the nonprofit.)

Wednesday marked the return of the volunteering event; the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 led CalVet to shut off most access to the Veterans Home, which includes a skilled nursing center and a memory-care center for dementia patients. While CalVet welcomed the hundreds of helpers, the Home Depot Foundation – with an eye toward the home’s older and more medically vulnerable population – avoided the indoor projects of years past, concentrating on outdoor improvements.

Some of this year’s projects – particularly improved seating to encourage more time in the fresh air – arose from months of conversation with the Yountville home’s Allied Council representing residents, according to Lisa Peake, the facility’s administrator.

“We’ve talked to the council and they’ve asked for seating, something that’s easier to get out of or into, or something softer,” she said while touring the various work sites, adding that other open-air areas received benches with night lighting or canopies to shade residents against the sun.

One of the volunteer laborers in Yountville treated his work as a sort of payback for the help he received from the nearby Tug McGraw Foundation more than a decade ago.

“When I see my guys suffering and I suffer too, it makes me enjoy helping others, especially other veterans," said Alejandro Becker, a Navy SEAL who retired in 2013 and has offered his time at veteran-oriented benefit events since, including in Yountville. “When you (leave the military) it’s hard to turn that switch off, and I see that struggle with a lot of people.”

While Becker and others sawed and nailed inside the Brain Food Garden, a Veterans Home resident quietly appreciated the outsiders he said were showing far more true esteem for veterans than most.

“It’s awesome; it makes you feel good,” said Marc Northcutt, a Navy veteran who moved to the Yountville home seven years ago. “This will be long-lasting; you can come up here and see it time after time. … I’ve come here and meditated quite a few times. When you’re here to get a sense of tranquility; other parts of the home I don’t feel that way.”

“Actions speak louder than words. People say ‘Thank you for your service’ so much it gets to be like a catchphrase, but when you see these people doing it, they mean it – they show it.”

You can reach Howard Yune at 530-763-2266 or hyune@napanews.com

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Public Safety Reporter

Howard Yune covers public safety for the Napa Valley Register. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.

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