Resident’s vegetable garden offers bountiful harvest, therapeutic escape amid pandemic

Lance 1

Gardening can improve your physical health. It invites you to get outside, exercise, and eat healthy food.

But can the activity also improve your mental wellbeing? For Lance V., a resident at SERV Behavioral Health System, Inc., the answer is a resounding yes.

In May, as the nation prepared for another summer of restrictions and uncertainty, Lance turned his sights to the patch of unused land behind the Cranbury Neck group home in Middlesex County.

A plan in mind, Lance teamed up with other group home residents and three staff members: Nursing Services Coordinator Rena Sandomir, Residential Program Manager Christy Hudnett, and Sr. Counselor Elisha Dupree. Together, they tilled the soil, planted an assortment of vegetable seeds and cornstalks, and transformed the once-empty space into a sprawling garden.

Since then, the garden has produced tomatoes, squash, zucchini, cucumbers, baby Japanese eggplants, and bell peppers. Lance and the residents of the Cranbury Neck group home have enjoyed these vegetables all summer, preparing several nutritious and tasty meals.

“About twice a week, we gather vegetables from the garden and use them to make a nice dinner,” Lance says. “We’ve made cucumber salads, sliced tomato sandwiches, and an eggplant and squash sauté. The veggies are always delicious, and everyone really enjoys picking and preparing them.”

The garden has also been a source of solace for Lance. Much like his mindfulness exercises, he says gardening has improved his mental wellbeing, reducing feelings of stress and anxiety.  

“I tend to the garden every morning, around 7:00 a.m., making sure the plants get enough water, weeding, and anything else that is needed,” he says. “It’s therapeutic and relaxing, and it helps distract me from current events and anything negative I may be thinking or feeling.

“It also feels great to see the results of my work—to watch the plants grow and know that I helped care for them.”    

Lance, who will turn 71 in November, has been a resident at SERV since 2016 and a resident at the Cranbury Neck group home for just over two years. A former teacher, he holds a degree in history from Rutgers University.

Lance says his experience at SERV has been “extremely positive.” He has formed a lot of great relationships with staff members who always have his “best interests in mind” and have helped him realize his "full potential."

He has formed close bonds with many residents, as well. “We are like a family here,” he says. “We all get along well, and I enjoy the comradery.

“I have a great support system at SERV, and at this point in my life, I really value all of these close relationships I have formed.”

With the end of summer in sight, Lance is already looking forward to next year. He says he plans to expand the vegetable garden, adding even more plants, which he hopes will produce another bountiful harvest.

Once the pandemic is over, Lance would also like to volunteer at a local nursing home or for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

“I want to give back,” he says. “Despite my problems, I do feel like, in my life, I’ve been fortunate in many ways. I have a lot of great family members and friends who care about me and have helped me. And I’d like to help others who do not have the support system that I do.”