Sgt. Jasper Stephenson helps out during the US Army Fort Belvoir USO Garden Works Herb giveaway in November.

When Air Force Col. Darrin Palladino learned over the summer through a Facebook post that Fort Belvoir was starting a USO Metro Garden Works, he immediately offered his services.

Palladino and some of his co-workers were already gardeners, but this opportunity gave him another option to help fellow Service members.

“I enjoy when other people are sharing what they are doing with their gardens,” Palladino said. “When I see people are successful trying to grow something that’s exciting.”

Palladino is one of about 12 volunteers who work with Belvoir’s USO-Metro Garden Works.

“I call this competitive relaxation,” Palladino said. “It’s relaxing because it keeps you active. And competitive because you are battling pests, weather and nutritional depletion.”

To get a better understanding of needs, the USO-Metro Garden Works organization sent out a survey to the active military population.

The responses focused on one primary concern in response to reducing social isolation, while “protecting the environment, encouraging family (and) general wellness” through a virtual community during the pandemic.

“The Service members’ families wanted to grow their own food,” said Fred Abbey, a volunteer and the co-lead for the installation’s USO-Metro Garden Works. “There was a desire to be independent and resilient.”

With in-person gatherings restricted, USO-Metro Garden Works used various methods to present educational information through social media platforms. They created a private Facebook page that is administered by Abbey and three other Master Gardeners, Kathy Wellington (who is a mental health counselor), Karen Keefer (a desktop publisher) and Lynn Murray (a retired school teacher).

That helped enroll about 200 families, but they realized that wasn’t enough, especially for military families who don’t have Facebook or can’t because of security clearance. The group formed a website as well to make the information more accessible. They also hold Zoom sessions.

USO-Metro Garden Works held a Thanksgiving give-away that focused on Fall Herb Nutrition. The distributed fresh herbs came from the USO Warrior and Family Center gardens. The program included a children’s activity as well as tips on how to dry herbs, a list of types of herbs and their nutritional value as well as how to use them in meals. The group received help from soldiers who tied the herbs in bagged bundles.

In December, the group will show 5-minute segments with gardeners at Colonial Williamsburg to discuss how the farmers and gardeners grew food in the 18th century. They also will introduce their favorite tools.

Abbey likes the idea of mentoring others and working for a group that provides the resources to properly educate people.

After retiring as a partner in a major international company, Abbey wanted to find something that met three prerequisites: people, purpose and place. Although he has no military background himself, Abbey eventually found all three when he began seven years ago co-facilitating the nature based therapy program for Fort Belvoir hospital inpatients there for addiction treatment.

“There is a culture in the military of community and mutual respect for each other,” Abbey said. “If there’s a need in the community, people will help fill that. It’s an environment that encourages like-minded people to contribute.”

For more information, email USO-Metro Garden Works at programsandservices@usometro.org, or go to Facebook and search for “USO-Metro garden works”