Q&A: Growing Veterans co-founder on his award and his time at Western

Two years ago, Western alumnus Chris Brown, 29 co-founded Growing Veterans, an organization that supports veterans and helps them adapt to civilian life through working together in agriculture. Now, after months of hard work in and out of the dirt, it won one of 10 national grants of $175,000 for innovation through the J.M. Kaplan fund to help train future peer supporters who help veterans with a smoother transition into civilian life.

He graduated from Western in 2012 with a bachelor’s in human services, and is working on a master’s in social work from University of Washington. The Western Front asked Brown about his time at Western and his program.

Growing Veterans Director Chris Brown, left talks to veteran Billy Pacaccio while processing lettuce at the organic farm north of Bellingham Friday morning, June 27, 2014. The nonprofit program gives veterans a place to support each other while growing vegetables for the community. Photo courtesy of Philip A. Dwyer, The Bellingham Herald.

Growing Veterans Director Chris Brown, left talks to veteran Billy Pacaccio while processing lettuce at the organic farm north of Bellingham Friday morning, June 27, 2014. The nonprofit program gives veterans a place to support each other while growing vegetables for the community. Photo courtesy of Philip A. Dwyer, The Bellingham Herald.

Q: Describe how you started Growing Veterans.

A: At Western, I worked at the Veterans office as an AmeriCorp member. In my major, human services, I focused on understanding issues I faced as a military veteran and identify solutions to help the veteran population find healthy systems to reintegrate into their communities. I talked to other veterans, who mostly went to Huxley. We would discuss the environment and agricultural systems. Through my own healing process to reconnect to my surroundings after three deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, I started a garden. I knew first hand the therapeutic factor of gardening. After graduation, I was accepted for a fellowship for non-profit The Mission Continues, which provides stipends to veterans to start a non-profit organization in their community.

Q: What inspired you to start Growing Veterans?

A:  My time in the military was big motivator. As a survivor, I wanted to dedicate my life to make sure their deaths weren’t in vain. Since coming out, 15 of our guys commit suicide. Every time I hear about one of them, it strengthens my motivation and what I’m doing is needed.

Q: Describe your time at Western.

A: My time at Western was a big contributor for my reintegration. It was tough being a first generation and older college student, one who experienced war, and being around younger students who hadn’t had those experiences. Yet, I had supportive professors who pushed me out of my comfort zone.

I lived in off campus, and in town, with my wife, who is also a Western alum.  I was the co-founder of Western’s veteran community, a group of everyone who was supportive of veterans. I participated on a presentation to the Facility Senate discussing practices for supporting veteran students. I was on the hiring committee for the human services program at the time they were looking for a new professor.

Q: Did your time at Western play a part in starting this program? How?

A: Yes. If it wasn’t for the things I learned in the human services program, I would not have the confidence to start something like this.

Q: Describe how you see this program helping veterans.

A: One issue veterans have coming out of the military is having a hard time translating their military skills onto to resume that civilian employers understand. We provide stepping stones for veterans who just now getting out. We helped connect veterans to employment opportunities. Our primary focus is to provide a safe space for veterans who aren’t ready to jump into the civilian world again. We help them seek other support services as well.

I’ve heard of cases where veterans, for some it was the first time leaving their house since coming out of the military and others who were contemplating suicide, went to the farm and saw that there was hope.

Q: How do you reach out to other veterans to join the program?

A: Our members tell us they found us through word-of-mouth. We also talk to local veteran offices. We are beginning to build context on regional military bases. I serve on the Whatcom County Veterans Advisory board, which allows me to maintain regular communication with the county veteran representatives. We use social media.

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