NAPERVILLE, Ill. — Veronica Porter combines her compassion for veterans and her passion for growing and sharing healthy food in many things she does.
Her grandfather was an organic farmer, and several members of her family served in the military. Her father, father-in- law and her husband are all veterans.
“So it is instilled in me,” she said.
These experiences led her to establish Veterans Victory Farm in Naperville. The farm grows organic foods using regenerative practices and provides jobs for veterans, including those who suffered from traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“There’s a brotherhood and camaraderie. It is focused. It is healing,” she said of veterans working together.
Gardening has been clinically proven as therapy, and she felt it was necessary to have more opportunities for veterans in agriculture.
“If I can’t find a program I think is needed, I see if I can make it happen,” she said. “Veterans are used to helping others. It is difficult for them to ask for help. It’s not natural.”
Veterans need to be occupied, feel valued and have a purpose, Porter said. Veterans Victory Farm is organized as a business, not a nonprofit. Veterans and others working here earn $15 an hour.
While it is important for the workers to be dependable, there is some leeway. Providing opportunities is not a math equation that needs to be solved, she said.
“Each person is an individual who needs to be given opportunities to work through what they need to work through,” said Porter, who has a long history of working with church ministries and adults and teens with mental and developmental disabilities.
Porter also is active helping other organizations including Growing Healthy Veterans, a nonprofit that operates gardens in Chicago and Gurney to help veterans in active duty recover from the trauma of war.
One of those veterans, Alex Dalzell, was diagnosed with PTSD after serving in the Marine Corps from 2007-16 in Afghanistan. He was introduced to Growing Healthy Veterans through the Veterans Treatment Lake County Veterans Court.
“I got to learn about agriculture and I got to work with my hands. A lot of veterans would agree that they find joy in working with their hands. Getting out there and doing some hard labor work is always good for the mind,” Dalzell said.
“I gained friendships and a sense of purpose. That’s why I still volunteer there whenever I can. I enjoy the work, and I enjoy the people. Some type of community involvement helps me to maintain my sobriety.”
Porter’s farm also employs others who are highly capable, but may have hidden disabilities. This effort was inspired by her son, Michael, who had a traumatic brain injury but is capable of productive work. She became aware of the need for opportunities for high-functioning people who may be blind, deaf, autistic, experience PTSD or have traumatic brain injuries.
“They don’t want to be defined by their disability,” she said.
Like many programs, it was paused during the pandemic when restaurants buying organic vegetables were closed. However, much of the food they grow is also given to food pantries.
Porter has plans to grow the farm further. Today, the main “farm” is more of a large garden, along with the projects they work on at other locations, including schools and urban gardens. Often the veteran workers create a garden with another group or association and that group takes it forward.
“I’d like to grow it to a real farm,” she said.
She envisions providing organic produce and jobs for veterans on a larger scale. Her “real farm” would include space for teaching and mentoring, include selling more produce and eventually providing housing for workers — particularly for women, she said.
What she intends to do all builds on what she has already done. Porter has been involved with the Farmers Veterans Coalition of Illinois since it was just a working group and now she is vice president, said Raghela Scavuzzo, associate director of food systems development at Illinois Farm Bureau.
“She is what FVC is striving to be. She is a great leader driving the organization forward,” said Scavuzzo, a coalition board member representing the Illinois Farm Bureau. “She has such a love for this industry and often attends conferences and workshops to learn more for her farm and for other farms.”
Porter is especially active in the Homegrown by Heroes project. It allows veterans to put a distinctive logo on their farm products showing it was produced by a veteran.
“Her husband being a veteran helps make it a passion for her,” Scavuzzo said.
Among other things, the Illinois coalition operates Farm Corps, where farmers looking for employees and veterans looking for jobs can connect.