Planting the seeds of change: How Veterans to Farmers helps vets turn over a new leaf

This week’s spotlight: all things food.


Veterans to Farmers provides job opportunities for veterans and fresh, locally-produced food for communities.
(photo via

Buck Adams started hiring veterans to work in his greenhouses because it just made so much sense. For veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, a greenhouse is a natural decompression chamber.

“There’s daylight, natural life, no hustle and bustle besides the hum of fans and water flowing so it’s tranquil and peaceful. The natural process of seeing life and nurturing life and growing something that feeds others—I think that helps the brain heal itself,” he says.

A former U.S. Marine Corps Security Forces NCO who’s been around agriculture his whole life—his parents raised chickens on contract for Tyson in Arkansas—Buck describes seeing the effects of the greenhouse on vets as an “a-ha!” moment. He knew he had to share the stability and security he found in sustainable agriculture with others, so he founded the Denver-area nonprofit Veterans to Farmers in 2012. 

The journey to get there was winding. After returning from the service, Buck bounced around for a few years before learning about the growing importance of localized food systems and energy conservation—and how the U.S. lags behind in using new technology to grow food in clean, efficient ways (for example, Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA)—the method his greenhouses use, wherein plants are grown aeroponically and hydroponically in a highly controlled greenhouse environment, maximizing output and resources while minimizing waste, pests, and diseases).

Buck used this knowledge to found Circle Fresh Farms in 2009, which is now Colorado’s largest hydro-organic greenhouse grower. If you’ve bought organic tomatoes from Whole Foods, there’s a good chance they came from the Circle Fresh network.


Buck Adams in one of his greenhouses.
(photo courtesy of VTF)

To share the opportunities he found in farming with his fellow veterans, Buck made it part of his company’s policy to hire vets in 2011.

VTF grew from this decision; today they work to train vets in horticulture and business management to provide communities with fresh, healthy food and veterans with a chance to gain the skills they need to start or manage greenhouse businesses of their own. At least three graduates of the VTF program have gone on to start (or are in the process of starting) their own farms. 

It’s a perfect match, as there’s a lot of overlap between the skills and training gained in the military and those it takes to monitor a CEA greenhouse.

“The controlled environment runs on highly regimented standard operating procedures which vets are used to,” Buck says. “They’re paying close attention to their work, and their military training overlaps very well with this kind of growing… It’s a natural transition.”

VTF is now working on building a national agricultural and business management training center for vets in downtown Denver. This facility will also serve as the site of a vet-owned farming co-op which will provide fresh, organic vegetables to the surrounding community through CSA memberships.

It might sound simple, but starting his own greenhouse business and nonprofit wasn’t easy, and Buck faces funding challenges as this major commercial project develops in the coming year. They’re launching a Kickstarter campaign this Veterans Day to help bring the project to fruition.

Despite the busy year ahead, he keeps at it. He attributes his success to combining good ideas, good timing, and a lot of hard work.

From there, “It’s just grown organically,” he jokes.

In the past, we’ve blogged about an all-volunteer veteran disaster relief organization, a veteran who volunteers with a blind baseball team, and a veteran healing project.

What other organizations, companies, or individuals are working to help veterans readjust to civilian life?

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Idealist community (that’s you) steps up to help bring healing project to veterans

We love it when this happens.

In an Ideal to Real story this past May, we profiled Ellen Severino, a Brooklynite interested in alternative medicine who’s striving to bring the Japanese spiritual healing practice called Reiki to the military community. Since then, Ellen reports that the Idealist community (that’s you) has really stepped up to help her.

So far, she’s been blogged about by The Omega Institute and has made plans to attend their Veterans, Trauma & Treatment conference next month; has been collaborating with Military Musters to become their first practitioner in New York; and is looking into getting Reiki master training so she can teach others how to perform the treatment—especially people involved with the armed forces.

Plus, there was this potential game-changer:

Lori Nolen contacted me through Idealist several weeks ago. She has stepped up to the plate in a major way, providing an enormous amount of expertise and mentoring. It’s a great example of the benefits of community.
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 Ellen recently renamed her initiative the “Reiki Service Project” and adopted this snappy logo.

Lori is working through the final course of her master’s degree in nonprofit management at Regis University in Denver. For her final paper, she’s tasked with preparing a development (ie: fundraising) plan for the nonprofit of her choice. She’d researched well-established organizations for projects before, but never a startup, and Ellen’s project appealed to her.

She contacted Ellen through Idealist to ask if she could use the Reiki Service Project (RSP) as her case study.

“When I finish,” she wrote, “you’ll have a platform upon which to base your resource-building plan. You’ll have full rights to everything I write to use or change as you wish. And, perhaps others can replicate it after it is successful.”

Ellen gave Lori the green light, so for next six weeks, they’ll work together to build a viable development plan for the RSP. In the meantime, Ellen left us with these thoughts:

A month ago, it seemed like nothing was happening, everything was going at a snail’s pace. And then suddenly, there got to be a flow.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and think, “I should have had this done last week.” There’s nothing scarier than when you get that anxious, overwhelmed feeling, and you can get paralysis that way. So you just have to go one bite at a time. Just say, “Okay, what’s one email I can send right now? What’s one website I can read?”

You don’t need 15 hours to take a step toward making things happen; you need 15 minutes. Pick the very doable, small tasks, and feel the satisfaction of making progress. That moves you along.

Idealist has a very generous community. Even if they couldn’t help directly, many people reached out to say, “I think what you’re doing is great, and best of luck.” In this world, it’s so nice to have those pats on the back.

If you’d like to contact Ellen about the Reiki Service Project, send her a message through Idealist. Go community!

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Help Ellen help veterans with alternative medicine

Memorial Day reminds us to reflect on the meaning of the military in our lives and the experience of the military community. Read how one idealist is striving to lighten their burden, one person at a time, and how you can help.

Meet Ellen

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Ellen Severino

“I’ve always been drawn to complementary healing treatments,” says Ellen Severino, a Brooklyn resident who volunteers at the borough’s Fort Hamilton army base. “I was trained in reflexology many years ago and more recently was introduced to Reiki. I received several treatments and found them to be very powerful—like they shifted, or realigned, something inside me. I felt more balanced and at ease.”

Reiki is a hundred-year-old Japanese spiritual healing practice that uses light touch to bring balance and relaxation to the body and mind. Wanting to learn more about it after her own treatments, Ellen enrolled in Reiki classes at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, New York a few years ago.

“My dad was a World War II veteran who dealt with PTSD [posttraumatic stress disorder], although there was no such diagnosis back then. He had a full life, but PTSD did limit him. I have often wondered how different his life would have been if he had received appropriate treatment. PTSD remains an enormous issue in today’s military. Reiki is by no means a cure-all, but I’ve seen it really improve the quality of people’s lives. It can be an effective tool in creating a sense of well-being.”

The intention

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Ellen gives a soldier a Reiki treatment.

Ellen started volunteering to provide Reiki treatments at the base in August of last year, and has committed about eight hours a week since. “This is a community under a tremendous amount of stress, and their resources are limited—there are year-long backlogs of vets waiting for services, and in the meantime, they’ve more than picked up the tab,” she says.

Anyone in the military community is welcome to participate in what Ellen’s been calling “The Reiki Service Project,” including enlistees, their families, civilians who work on the base, and employees of the nearby VA hospital.

“I offer Reiki treatment in a very conventional, straightforward manner,” she says. “It is an elegant and simple practice.”

So far, she’s received enthusiastic feedback. “I have 6’2” Marines coming in skeptical,” she says. “I give them a brief explanation of what Reiki is and say, ‘Give it a try.’ They’re usually surprised by how much better they feel. I’ve done at least 400 20-minute sessions, and out of those, only one person said she didn’t feel any different afterward. The soldiers I see report feeling better, sleeping better, and being able to interact with their families with more patience and ease.”

Ellen would like to spend more time offering Reiki at the base, but can’t afford to be a full-time volunteer. She would also like to see Reiki treatments made more available to the military community at large, but isn’t sure how to take the next steps.


So far, Ellen has shared her idea with several people and knows at least four other Reiki practitioners who would volunteer their time. She was also recently invited by a colonel at Fort Hamilton to present about Reiki on a “resiliency training” panel for over 250 army recruiters. Despite this support, Ellen is still facing some challenges:

1. Organizing.

“I lack business savvy,” she says. “I’ve looked into creating a nonprofit to expand this work, but need someone with expertise to explain the pros and cons. Perhaps there is a better way to move forward.”

2. Funding.

Ellen feels strongly that military personnel shouldn’t have to pay out of pocket for these services, but she needs ideas for alternative funding. “The good news is the overhead is very low: space is provided by the military base, Reiki doesn’t require special supplies, I don’t need to develop a product. But it still needs some money to keep it going. People tell me to look into applying for grants, but I don’t know how to single out the most likely funders, or much about the application process or writing grant proposals.”

3. Expanding.

“This is a national concern,” says Ellen. “Many military people are unsatisfied with the medical choices available to them—they want alternatives to the conventional treatments. Creating programs to educate them and offer treatments like Reiki would empower them to take charge of their healing.”

Ellen knows many practitioners successfully implementing Reiki programs in different settings, but hasn’t seen anyone near her doing it on a big scale. “There’s a program in Fort Bliss designed by the military that employs Reiki,” she says, “so they have publicly recognized its benefits. They’re also using it at Walter Reade and other veterans’ hospitals. But it should be out there more.”

How you can help

  • Are you a Reiki or other complimentary healing practitioner who has created a nonprofit and could offer advice?
  • Do you know about grants available for alternative medicine projects?
  • Are you a Reiki provider who would like to volunteer with Ellen, or start your own volunteer project in another area?
  • Are you a member of the military community who could introduce Ellen to useful contacts in your network?
  • Can you give Ellen advice about the pros and cons of starting a nonprofit versus a business to advance her work?

If you have ideas, please leave them in the comments below or send Ellen a message through Idealist. We’ll keep you up to date as The Reiki Service Project progresses.

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From Vietnam to blind baseball: one veteran’s volunteering story

From Milserve to Team Rubicon, the opportunities for vets to continue serving after they’ve come home are increasing. According to a recent report by Civic Enterprises, becoming involved with community service can greatly help the transition to civilian life. This is one vet’s story. 

During his time with the Air Force in Vietnam, Jeff Hottensen lived on almost every continent in the world. When he returned to NY after a little over two decades, he saw an ad in the paper to volunteer with a blind baseball team in Babylon. Eighteen years later Jeff is still stepping up to the plate.

“All those years in the service, I never had a connection to anything. No place was home,” he says. “I wanted to be part of a community, to do something and not move every two and a half years.”

Jeff, now 65-years-old and a customer service rep at AAA, grew up playing stickball in Manhattan and loves that baseball is a sport almost anyone can play. Twist the rules a bit, throw unlikely players on the field, and the game becomes even more high stakes.

Jeff (left) at a recent exhibition game at Citi Field, home of the NY Mets. (Photo via Camille Hottensen.)

“Not only are they beating a disability, but they are beating the system. It’s so much more thrilling,” he says.

Beep baseball works like this: A sighted pitcher throws a beeping ball to a blind or visually impaired batter who is blindfolded to combat any advantage. After hitting the ball, the batter uses their hearing to run to first, even better third base, which is also beeping. No balls are thrown. If the fielder gets the ball before the batter reaches the base, they’re out. The game is over in six innings.

Jeff is currently with Rockville Centre-based Long Island Bombers and has had just about every role from catcher to base judge to umpire at the World Series — in addition to describing items at the gift shop so the players can bring home souvenirs when they travel. He’s suffered bumps and bruises, broken fingers, even a concussion, yet he returns year after year.

“I learned, which I never thought I had, that caring feeling,” he says. “I surprised myself.”

From national service to community service

The first time Jeff met the players he was nervous about how he would act. He’d never been around the blind before.

“I was so scared of saying the wrong things,” he says. “I remember meeting this guy Jack who was running the team. He said ‘Good to see you. Oh wait, I can’t. So maybe it’s good for you to see me.’ ”

The immediate joking made Jeff feel right at home. Eventually he was able to transfer the leadership skills he honed in the Air Force to volunteering. Early on in Vietnam, for example, Jeff was thrown into a role as Branch Chief and had to manage people of all genders, races, and ages.

“I loved seeing young kids come in, teaching them, and watching them grow up,” he says. “Before they ship out you’ve made them into somebody respectful. You saw them build their self-confidence.”

With the Bombers, whose players are increasingly younger, empowering them to not fall into a depression because of blindness is part of teaching them how to swing a bat.

“Her mom said her life has changed so much and that this is the best thing that has happened to her,” Jeff says about a new sixteen-year-old recruit who’d recently gone blind. “How can I quit now? Those things keep me going.”

In later years Jeff has become more involved with organizing. If the weather is bad, he sets up a phone chain. If they’re stuck at the airport on the way to the World Series, he makes sure the players have something to do. Each year Jeff also arranges the LI Classic, a local tournament.

A second family

Above all, being a part of the Bombers reminds Jeff of the tight knit camaraderie he experienced in the Air Force. He and his usual roommate at the World Series, Jim Hughes, have been with each other through marriages, births, career changes, and more.


The Long Island Bombers have been around since 1997. (Photo via the team.)

“The two of us have just grown up together. He was 18, I was 40-something when we both started. Unbelievable,” Jeff says. “You build lifetime relationships over this. You really do.”

It makes occasions like winning a game at the World Series even more special. The year was 2005, the field was Houston’s Meyer Park. Jeff was catching; the Bombers hadn’t won a game yet. It was the last one of the series. Frank Guerra got a hit that tipped the game in their favor. He jumped into Jeff’s arms, and the rest of the team went crazy.

“I just thought it was the greatest moment,” Jeff says. “Without winning a game they might’ve lost a lot of courage and confidence, and not gone to the next World Series.”

Not like the team needed much cheering up to begin with. Jeff is continually struck by is how the players don’t view their blindness as a handicap, a philosophy they spread through local clinics and demonstrations at places like Camp Abilities.

“I never heard one of them complain about something they couldn’t do,” Jeff says. “It’s made me less tolerant about people who whine about nothing.”

The positivity is addicting. Soon, Jeff and his wife are thinking about becoming snowbirds, spending half the time in New York and half the time in Florida. He’s already putting feelers out to see if he could start a team down south and add more years to his umpire uniform.

The question remains: Will he ever strike out with beep baseball? The likely answer is no.

“I’m staying for at least 20 so I can get my retirement pay,” Jeff says, laughing.

Inspired to volunteer? The Bombers are always looking for extra hands to carry bats, spot bases, and wear blindfolds. Get in touch by emailing

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Hiring? Here's why veterans can be your greatest asset

“There are support services for vets, but a lot of vets don’t want to be helped,” says Joanne Dennis, Director of Program Development at Team Rubicon, a nonprofit that unites the skills and experiences of military veterans in disaster response, and also helps aid the transition back to civilian life. “Vets don’t want your pity, they don’t want your sorrow. They want to help others.” A recent Civic Enterprises report revealed that 92% of veterans want to continue serving their communities after their military service.


Veterans dedicate their skills to disaster relief efforts. Could they also be a good fit for your organization? (Photo: Team Rubicon Flickr stream)

That desire to serve has drawn more than 500 veterans to apply to volunteer with Team Rubicon in disaster relief missions in places like Burma, Haiti, and Joplin, MO since it was founded in January 2010. But while Team Rubicon’s volunteer base is growing fast, it can’t help with job placement. “We have some firemen who volunteer with us on their days off, and a lot of college students. But a lot of the volunteers are in transition,” explains Joanne. “They’ve come home to an economic climate where they just can’t find jobs. And especially jobs that have meaning or purpose.”

In an uncertain economic climate, many nonprofit leaders and business owners are understandably unwilling to take risks – especially when hiring. When faced with a stack of resumes, why choose the person whose background you are uncertain of and whose experience on paper doesn’t directly translate to your organization’s needs?

That’s the reality most veterans are facing when applying for jobs today. They come home with countless “soft” skills, including management and supervision, team-building, and the ability to successfully lead diverse groups of people while staying calm under pressure. These skills often don’t translate to traditional workplaces where recruiters are looking for resumes with years of conventional experience. But they are often the trademarks of an irreplaceable colleague, especially in a mission-driven organization.

In August, President Obama challenged the private sector to hire 100,000 unemployed post-9/11 veterans or their spouses by 2013. This Veteran’s Day, we’re curious whether nonprofits and other agencies and organizations are heeding that call as well.

Have you hired folks with military experience? Are you a veteran currently looking for work? Please share your experiences in the comments below.

This post was written by Bernadette Matthews, a volunteer with Team Rubicon, and Idealist bloggers Celeste Hamilton and Julia Smith. (Full disclosure: Celeste Hamilton and Joanne Dennis are in-laws.)

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Today’s random picks: From blog design in Ghana to market analysis in Guatemala


From One Laptop per Child (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Every day, hundreds of new listings are added to our site. Here’s a small sampling of the types of organizations, opportunities, and events you can connect with.

Today’s areas of focus: Claims and Examining, and Communications Access and Infrastructure

Organization: AMVETS (American Veterans)
Location: Lanham, Maryland, United States
In their own words: “AMVETS is one of the most respected volunteer-led organizations in the country that provides, not only support for veterans and the active military in porcuring their earned entitlements, but also community services that enhance the quality of life for this nation’s citizens.”

Job: Billing Assistant
Organization: Shema Kolainu
In their own words: “Shema Kolainu is a nonprofit school and center for children with autism utilizing Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) on a one child to one teacher ratio.”

Volunteer Opportunity: Blog designer & social networking sites coordinator
Organization: Free World Foundation
In their own words: “The vision of the “FOUNDATION” is to strive for a society where the fundamental human rights of every individual are respected, where the rule of law reigns supreme, good governance is guaranteed and adequate measures are put in place to ensure security & peace building.”

Internship: Market Analyst Internship-GUATEMALA
Organization: Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group (AIDG)
In their own words: “Through a combination of business incubation, education, training, and outreach, the AIDG helps individuals and communities gain access to technology that will improve their lives.”

Event: Donation-based lunchtime yoga benefitting microfinance
Organization: ACCION USA
In their own words: “Come and join us at our New York office for Micro-Yoga every Tuesday, presented by Erica Dorn, trained yoga instructor and ACCION USA employee!”

Search hundreds of other listings filed under Claims and Examining or Communications Access and Infrastructure, or post an opportunity of your own.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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From Serving Your Country to Serving Your Community

Announcing our latest resource for career transitions: From Serving Your Country to Serving Your Community. This booklet is free for download, and is an introductory companion to The Idealist Guides to Nonprofit Careers.

One of our Career Corner columnists, Steven Joiner, created this resource for soldiers on active duty as well as veterans who are interested in transferring their talents from service in the armed forces into a social impact career in the nonprofit sector. Topics include setting yourself up for success during your service; making the switch from service to social impact work; and adjusting to your new work after your transition.

Also of note: today Service Nation launched Mission Serve, “a network of 36 initiatives partnering civilian and military service organizations to meet the critical needs of our nation, troops, military families, and veterans.” To learn how you can support military families, help veterans find meaningful employment, and otherwise get involved, visit the Mission Serve website.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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