Formerly homeless vets team up with Colorado Springs teens to plant garden

ROTC cadets, community volunteers and even a mountain lion joined forces to help plant a garden at a housing facility for military vets.
Published: May. 5, 2023 at 8:41 AM MDT
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KKTV) - Freedom Springs, located in Colorado Springs, is a refuge for those who have served our country so bravely but have fallen on hard times.

Opened in October 2020, the facility offers a number of services to vets experiencing homelessness or at risk of it.

“We take them in, we help them get case management, helping to get set up for all the programs they may be eligible for,” said Jon Ewing, communications for Volunteers of America Colorado, the lead service provider for the facility. “A lot of times, there’s a lot of great stuff that’s available to veterans that they may not know about, that they may not have access to, so we have professionals see if they can help get them linked up.”

Most of all, it’s a place these vets can call home while they’re getting back on their feet.

“When somebody’s ready to get into a housing situation, once they’re a little more stable, ready to take the next step, we get them here and we send them on their way.”

And part of makes the building feel like home are little touches like the community garden, planted every spring since opening two and a half years ago.

“You take pride and ownership in your home -- this is their home. They love this garden,” Ewing said. “Everybody’s got their own individual plot here that they’re working on. In the summer, they’re going to come out, tend to it, look over it, care for it.”

“We have vegetables that grow here,” said Anna Horn, who has lived at Freedom Springs since it opened. “And it’s actually great for us to come out and get some sunshine and see other community members that live here. It’s a great project to have.”

Horn and her partner Doug Olig, a fellow resident since 2020, told 11 News that among the many aspects of the project: cleaning the plots, working with the soil, planting, tending, they also can many of the vegetables they grow.

The community garden provides veterans with a calming space and is a point of pride among residents, the facility says.

Last weekend, with the help of volunteers from Sand Creek High School’s JROTC cadets, ENT Credit Union, the United Way -- even a mountain lion! -- Freedom Springs kicked off another gardening season.

“We try to set up like community service events early on in the year,” said JROTC Cadet 1st Lt. Aaron Zyskowski, who is the program’s community service officer. “We usually just do you clean ups around the neighborhood in the school as much as we can, but an event like this is like the first time we’ve ever done something like this specifically.”

It was a party atmosphere Saturday: music, barbecue, laughter!

“It’s just awesome for the veterans here. The veterans get to hang out with the Air Force ROTC members, talking with them, spending time with them. It’s just a kick for them. It’s a thrill for them,” Ewing said.

“They’re learning how to take care of their yard, which their parents will like,” Olig joked.

“We’re just helping the veterans with their garden beds. Helping turn over the soil so they can plant,” Zyskowski told 11 News. “... It’s really important for them. We’re just here to help and connect with the veterans.”

Even Clyde the UCCS mountain lion was there, cheering them on!

“It’s a great event. We do it every year. The veterans that are here next year will do it again,” Ewing said.

The residents say the garden means a great deal to them.

“We had to stop a few of the veterans from getting into [their plots] early -- got to do it all at once, can’t start spring early!” Ewing laughed.

“When most people think of affordable housing,” he went on, gesturing at all the bustle in the garden Saturday, “they don’t think of this. We have projects, a community.”

“We get these kind of projects every year, which is wonderful for our local community,” Horn said.

For those reading this who know of someone who could benefit from a place like Freedom Springs, more information can be found here.

Residents tell 11 News the facility has brought so much back into their lives.

“It’s a very positive outlook for a lot of us veterans who are transitioning and also veterans that just need a little helping hand along the way,” Olig said. “It’s been a very positive thing in our life, and we hope to continue the relationship with the folks here at Freedom Springs.”

“To be able to see this kind of resource available for us,” Horn added, “this is wonderful.”