How Veterans Healing Farm Provides a Place for Community Building
When John Mahshie of Hendersonville arrived at his first duty assignment in the Air Force in 2001, he found himself stuck in a constant cycle of depression. While serving our country in the midst of the turmoil of 9/11, his father passed away in a motorcycle accident on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Mahshie had to pull himself together with little time to grieve.
“I had no coping skills,” he recalls. “All I did was work and sleep. I got into some dark depression.”
Then, Mahshie had the opportunity to go on a mission trip to Mexico, where he planted a little garden for his host family. His mood began to lift.
“Something about planting the garden, serving and helping others took my eyes off the pain I felt inside,” Mahshie says. “I got joy from it, and I began dealing with my personal issues. I discovered that it’s therapeutic to help others.”
A Community of Hope
In 2007, Mahshie shared an idea with his wife, Nicole. He wanted to create a community where civilians and veterans would work side by side growing fresh fruits and vegetables that would be given away to veterans as a token of gratitude. In 2013, the couple started Veterans Healing Farm in Hendersonville. It is a community of 50 families – half civilian, half veteran – who support one another while working toward a common goal.
“There’s such a need for this. We all need to be connected with others, vitamin D from the sun, exercise and access to healthy foods,” Mahshie says. “Being around civilians helps veterans heal. Veterans can face many challenges after separation from the military. It’s hard to deal with the sense of mission loss when you get out – you had a mission bigger than yourself in the military.”
The tagline for Veterans Healing Farm is “Cultivating Life Through Community.” On a 10-acre plot, veterans and civilians work together to grow everything from lettuce and beans to tomatoes, corn and eggplant.
“The list is long – we grow 120 different items,” Mahshie says.
Every Tuesday during harvest season, freshly picked produce from Veterans Healing Farm is taken to the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville. There, it is given away free to veterans and their caregivers.
“At Veterans Healing Farm, the idea is purpose before self. If we were growing food for ourselves, it wouldn’t feel like enough for most people,” Mahshie says. “The idea of growing it to give away to veterans as a thank you to honor and respect them is pretty powerful.”
According to a study done by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in 2014, about 65 percent of all veterans who died by suicide were age 50 or older. Mahshie says it doesn’t surprise him.
“These veterans are struggling physically and mentally, but the military trains you to push through pain. Many older veterans feel they are a burden and don’t want to ask for help or handouts,” he says. “We always tell them we don’t grow this food for them out of pity – we do it because we respect them and want to honor them. We want to come alongside them and help them get the proper nutrition required to be healthy.”
Reaching Veterans Nationwide
The Mahshies have big plans for the future of Veterans Healing Farm. They recently completed work on the 2,100-square-foot Joshua McArdle Community Center, which has a large covered deck where families can socialize and hold movie nights and barbecues. The facility is named in honor of a young Marine from Asheville who took his own life in 2013.
“We want people to have the opportunity to know others and to be known,” Mahshie says. “I don’t know if what we’re doing is working, but when I die and get to heaven, if I find out that Veterans Healing Farm resulted in one less veteran taking their life, then it’s all worth it.”
In 2018, Veterans Healing Farm will begin to host a farming boot camp for veterans from around the country to empower them to replicate the program in their own communities.
“There’s so much work to do,” Mahshie says. “It’s like the movie Field of Dreams – if you build it, they will come.”
In 2017, Veterans Healing Farm quadrupled its programs due to demand. In order to continue to grow and impact veterans nationwide, they are in need of financial support. If you’d like to support the farm, online donations can be made at veteranshealingfarm.org.
“I feel strongly that veterans deserve to be honored, not pitied,” Mahshie says. “I want to show that veterans can cry tears of joy – not only pain. I want to see them with smiles on their faces.”
– Jessica Mozo