Journal of the NACAA
ISSN 2158-9429
Volume 4, Issue 2 - November, 2011


Evolution of a Green Job Skills Program for Unemployed US Veterans

Rowe, A.A., Environmental and Resource Management Agent for Essex/Passaic Counties, Rutgers Cooperative Extension
Zientek, J.L., Senior Program Coordinator, Rutgers Cooperative Extension


The Rutgers Cooperative Extension Sustainable Landscape and Stormwater Management class at the East Orange, NJ, Veteran Affairs Hospital has evolved over several years from evening seminars to a true certification program lasting several months. The class grew out of the persistence of a veteran who was a Rutgers Certified Master Gardener who connected the Veteran Affairs administration with the local office of Rutgers Cooperative Extension.  This program is now training unemployed veterans to re-enter the workforce with “green job” skills.  Several iterations of the class have brought it to its current format of in-class lectures augmented by hands-on training on the hospital grounds, as well as field trips offsite. This program is providing valuable green job training to veterans while also improving the hospital property through landscape beautification and the installation of stormwater management controls.  

Introduction and Program Background

The Veterans Affairs (VA) Health Care System is a national network of hospitals, outpatient clinics, and treatment centers for eligible veterans. In New Jersey, there are two major VA hospitals, one in Lyons and one in East Orange. The East Orange facility focuses on primary care for veterans and treats over 60,000 patients each year through 390,000 outpatient visits (Department of Veterans Affairs, 2010). The hospital’s mission is to “honor America's veterans by providing exceptional health care that improves their health and well being” and it has been in operation since 1952 (Department of Veterans Affairs, 2011). The VA Health Care System has a strong partnership with the Planetree Corporation, which is a patient-centered healthcare organization that focuses on patient well-being and the promotion of healing environments.

In 2005, a Rutgers Cooperative Extension (RCE) Senior Program Coordinator collaborated with the Newark Housing Authority to include public housing residents in the Rutgers Master Gardener program in Essex County. One of the students was a veteran going through the East Orange VA Hospital’s substance abuse program who had always been interested in gardening and landscaping. That veteran decided to enroll in RCE’s Master Gardener program.  After passing the exam and completing the required volunteer hours, the veteran became a Rutgers Certified Master Gardener and was approached by the VA hospital’s administration to tend to the landscaped courtyards between the facility buildings. The veteran enthusiastically complied, but soon became overwhelmed. He recruited the assistance of other Master Gardeners who helped assess the state of the existing landscape and developed new landscape designs for some of the public spaces. More assistance was required, and the veteran referred the Planetree coordinator and VA administration to the local RCE Senior Program Coordinator.  The Program Coordinator explained to VA/Planetree that Rutgers Master Gardeners are educators more than laborers, and that they would not be able to maintain the hospital grounds.  This led to a series of 10 evening seminars for hospital patients and staff, as well as a small workforce of veterans that began tending the hospital grounds as horticultural recreation. These classes were attended by 8 to 14 veterans each week as well as 6 to 10 nurses, doctors or laboratory technicians.

 The trained veterans started to focus on the hospital’s landscaping by mowing the lawn, weeding, and trimming bushes.  One of the first lectures presented by RCE was titled “Salad in a Box” which taught how to produce fresh salad greens (spinach, lettuce, and arugula) in a small container.  The gardening crew applied this concept to an unused 6’ x 10’ raised concrete planter and created a small “hoop house” in the clinic’s courtyard.  From November through February, this unheated structure provided fresh greens that were taken home by the veterans.  More importantly, the success of this small project excited the veterans about the potential of gardening at the hospital. 

The veterans, the Rutgers Program Coordinator, and Planetree staff decided to launch a community vegetable garden that spring.  Rutgers recommended raised beds as an efficient way to grow fresh, local produce while also avoiding the issue of possible soil contamination that is commonly found in older, urban areas like East Orange. The gardens and hospital grounds provided ample opportunities for the hands-on learning of gardening techniques that were taught during the lecture. The following year, the gardening program was offered to veterans as part of a residential substance abuse treatment program and approximately 30 veterans helped plant, maintain, and harvest the community garden (4 raised beds approximately 6’ x 50’ each.)  The success of the community gardens and the level of interest and engagement by veterans were appreciated by the clinical staff and exceeded their expectations. 

In 2010, a more in-depth landscape management class was derived from the Rutgers Master Gardener curriculum and focused on the basic tenets of landscaping such as soil, botany, entomology, plant disease, pruning, and certified pest management applicator training, among other topics. That year, the gardens the class planted yielded more than 1,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables, some of which were given to needy veterans with no other access to fresh produce. This year’s crop has already yielded more than 2,000 pounds of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cabbage, kale, collards, spinach and basil and the gardens are still producing.

Stormwater Management Program Expansion

2011 has been an extremely wet year in New Jersey, with more than 52 inches of precipitation through September, while the historical mean for the first nine months of the year is 35 inches (Means reported for 1895-2010) (Office of the NJ State Climatologist, 2011). The precipitation events have not only been more frequent, but, in some cases, more intense with high rainfall amounts generated by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. The East Orange, NJ, VA hospital campus is situated on more than 30 acres, but that space is taken up with buildings, parking lots, and other impervious surfaces that generate large volumes of stormwater. Much of the campus sits at the bottom of a hill below the main hospital facility and, when it rains, runoff from the hospital flows downhill and often leads to building leaks, local flooding, and large streams of stormwater flowing down the sidewalks. The VA administration had been actively investigating ways to “green” the facility by reducing environmental impacts while also managing runoff more effectively prior to 2011, but the unusually rainy conditions made sustainable stormwater management a top priority.

In 2010, Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Essex County hired an Environmental Agent who focuses on water resources issues and stormwater management. The Senior Program Coordinator introduced the new Agent to the Planetree coordinator and VA administrators with sustainable stormwater management in mind. The Agent gave a presentation and provided recommendations to the hospital administration for how the site’s stormwater could be handled effectively, sustainably, and economically. This year’s landscaping class (2011) was expanded to include a stormwater management aspect as this addition would provide the veterans with a broader expertise while the stormwater practices installed during the hands-on sessions would result in stormwater controls across the hospital grounds.

The stormwater management curriculum included the basics of stormwater, rainwater harvesting, and rain garden design. A rain garden is a shallow, landscaped depression that captures, treats, and infiltrates stormwater at the source before it becomes runoff. Rain gardens are growing in popularity in New Jersey, so several lectures were spent providing an in-depth presentation of rain garden topics including: typical design, installation, plant selection, costs, and difficult site design. The class also took a field trip to see a cistern installation in order to reinforce the concepts introduced during the rainwater harvesting lecture.

The 2011 Sustainable Landscape and Stormwater Management class had nine students and the group met once a week for a 2-hour in-class lecture and subsequent hands-on training sessions to reinforce the techniques introduced by those sessions. The class ran for 16 weeks with additional field trips, a review session, and an exam. This format resulted in approximately 35 hours of classroom instruction and 40 hours of field training.

Challenges and Future Directions

Attempts at evaluation were met with some resistance by the class. Pre-lecture surveys were given to the group in order to evaluate prior knowledge of stormwater topics and high test anxiety was observed with the students becoming upset and almost hostile. The surveys were multiple choice and all questions had a “not sure” option. Unfortunately, this did not allay the students’ fears of being considered “stupid” or “ignorant”, despite the tests being anonymous with random numbers being the only identifier. After witnessing the test anxiety, the Agent told the group to stop filling out the surveys and did not collect them. The class was relieved and the tension in the room was alleviated. In the future, alternative methods such as interviews, group discussions, and case studies may be more effective evaluation tools.

The 2012 class will be expanded to allow for a more detailed presentation of the topics taught this year, as well as new subjects such as: hardscape construction, small motor maintenance, and swale installation. The veterans will receive 75 hours of classroom instruction and 175 hours of hands-on experience over a more intense 8-week program. This year’s class began in the spring and finished in the early fall, which was not ideal with regard to timing for finding a landscaping or stormwater management job. The 2012 class will begin in January and conclude by early spring so that the graduates will be finished with their training in time for the spring landscaping recruitment period. RCE and the VA administration are also planning on hosting a job fair next spring to connect the program graduates to potential local employers.

Results and Conclusions

The roof runoff captured by the 4 installed rain barrels is being used in the site’s greenhouse, gardens, and flower beds. This rainwater harvesting is not only preventing the flow of stormwater into nearby buildings by directing overflow from the barrels away from the hospital, but is also reducing the facility’s potable water use. Although New Jersey’s overall water consumption has been decreasing, the percentage of water used for drinking water has increased nearly 8 percent over 10 years (Kenny et al., 2009). The rain barrels were constructed by the veterans from recycled plastic drums for which the facility was paying for the disposal of each month. The rain barrel installations are not only conserving 12,000 gallons of potable water per year, but are also saving the hospital money by reducing water demand and by reducing the need for drum removal.

Prior to this year’s class, the sidewalk from the bus stop to the main entrance of the VA hospital would routinely flood. The runoff from the large parking lot above the main entrance would flow across a grassy area, submerge the sidewalk, and leave a muddy trail as it made its way to the stormdrain at the bottom of the street. Due to these stormwater issues, RCE and the VA administration decided that the grassed section between the parking lot and the sidewalk would be ideal for a rain garden. The veterans installed and planted the rain garden soon after the introductory rain garden lecture. Minutes after the installation, a heavy rain began to fall and the group saw how the rain garden captured and infiltrated runoff, which reinforced the ideas presented during the in-class session. The sidewalk is now safe for patients with limited mobility as they do not have to maneuver around large runoff flows or icy patches that had formed at that location previously. This rain garden is preventing 28,000 gallons of stormwater runoff from entering the sewer system and has greatly reduced flooding in a high-traffic area.

Several of the VA administrators and the Planetree coordinator at the East Orange VA Campus were involved in the decision-making regarding the location of the onsite installations and they are pleased with the results, as the stormwater management installations are already having impact around the VA grounds. Overall, the Veterans Sustainable Landscape and Stormwater Management class has installed stormwater management controls that will reduce the stormwater generated onsite by 40,000 gallons per year. The demand for drinking water at the facility will be reduced by 12,000 gallons per year. The community gardens at the hospital campus have produced more than 2,000 pounds of local, sustainably-grown vegetables in 2011. 

The students in the class have also increased their awareness of the importance of stormwater management, sustainable landscaping, and environmental issues. This may lead to continued environmental stewardship in the students’ neighborhoods and communities, as well as the sharing of their newly-acquired knowledge with others. Recently, the unemployment rate for veterans was greater than 13 percent, while that of the overall population was 9 percent (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2011). Four of the 16 veterans who have participated in previous classes have gone on to find landscaping jobs or start their own companies.



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