Operation Eco Vets (OEV) is a Sarasota, Florida-based nonprofit providing veterans in the Sunshine State with training, employment, and healing through farming alongside others who have served.
The organization began as Green Path Veterans Farm under Florida Veterans for Common Sense Fund – a partnership integral to OEV’s creation.
On Wednesdays and the third Saturday of each month, the organization welcomes around 15 volunteers – a mix of veterans and community members – to work on the farm. Additionally, Operation Eco Vets hosts a boot camp gardening class on the second Saturday of each month. The course is open to all, free for veterans, and taught by Van Sant and other local experts on growing in Florida’s harsh terrain. The organization also has a paid landscaping and business internship program that sells plants to the public and hosts recreational and relationship-building days for veterans.
Founder and Executive Director Camille Van Sant – a U.S. Navy veteran – explained to Garden & Health the group’s peaceful garden environment is a healing place.
“It’s very calming, you know, just being out with the plants and lizards and frogs,” said Van Sant. “And we’re certified organic, so everything’s natural out there – butterflies everywhere, and it’s just watching the butterflies follow you around. So there’s just this gentleness in everything and because we do permaculture it’s not like a typical farm. This is like a landscape where you can eat everything in it.”
Van Sant says veterans are able to work through the trauma of the past by creating new life.
“When we start growing, and they see these things take place, they realize how gentle you have to be for that seedling to have to take hold and do well,” she said. “You’re responsible for this defenseless little plant that can’t talk to you or anything, and you want it to do well. So when you see it do well, you feel empowered – and when it becomes food, that’s even better because now you can get sustenance from it.”
The nonprofit shares farmland with the Easterseals Southwest Florida’s Happiness House – a disability services center home to an elementary and preschool. Van Sant explained OEV is contracted by Easterseals to grow food for the preschool which comprises around 80 students, half with disabilities. Easterseals also has middle and high schools for individuals with disabilities. Easterseals’ high school students visit the farm every Wednesday to harvest.
“They’re out with us on Wednesdays – the whole group of them – and they rotate the kids to get them out of the classroom,” said Van Sant. “They love coming out here. They just harvested a bunch of tomatoes and lettuce today.”
And, according to Van Sant, the veterans are just as excited to welcome the kids to the farm as the students are to visit.
“It’s good for the vets to be with children with disabilities. Veterans are very empathetic toward the underdog – that’s why they go and serve – because they want to take care of everybody,” she explained. The vets have newfound disabilities from war, and it can help with those that suffer from PTSD to see these children being happy and making it. “It gives them hope… [they think] ‘I can learn to live with this.’”
OEV has also formed a landscaping business that started gardens for All-Star Children’s Foundation, while also creating a healing and sensory garden for veterans and Easterseals students. The garden includes a small conversation area in the middle surrounded by bamboo walls wrapped with morning glories and honeysuckle.
“That’s a conversation place for veterans to go and chill and talk to one another. A lot of the healing is between veterans,” she explained.
The group consists of three part-time workers and Van Sant. The small but mighty nonprofit receives grants from local organizations like the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. In 2019, Operation Eco Vets earned $86,000 total from donations, outreach events, and landscaping ventures, according to Sarasota Magazine. The group raised $7,000 through the Giving Challenge in 2020. While the pandemic has posed a challenge financially, she emphasizes the local community and veterans have been supportive. Knowing the difference the organization is making for veterans keeps her going.
“I just feel I owe it to them – I owe my freedom to them,” Van Sant emphasized. “I want to help them in any way – empower them more than anything.”