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Founder of Whatcom’s Growing Veterans given national honor

Chris Brown is now the member of a group that includes First Lady Michelle Obama, Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, and Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show.”

Brown is the founder and director of Growing Veterans, a Whatcom County nonprofit program that helps military veterans ease back into civilian life while growing healthy vegetables for the community.

Brown, along with Obama, Stewart and others, was recently named to the first HillVets 100, a nationwide roster honoring the “most influential and impactful” people and groups working on behalf of veterans. HillVets describes itself as a bipartisan group working to increase veterans’ involvement in government and advocacy.

Brown learned about the honor from folks at the Bob Woodruff Foundation, which supports Growing Veterans and also made the list.

“I was a little bit in shock the rest of the day,” he said.

Brown said that as far as he knows, there’s no red-carpet ceremony or cash prize associated with the honor. Still, the recognition can’t hurt as Growing Veterans strives to develop a network of farms and other services in the region to help veterans.

“We definitely expect that to help us out in seeking funding,” he said.

Brown, 28, grew up in King County. He became a Marine in 2004 and served two deployments in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. While in Iraq, he was injured during a suicide-bombing attack on his base. He sustained a brain injury and copes with chronic knee and back pain, ringing in his ears, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

After the service, he earned a degree in human services at Western Washington University, with a focus on veterans’ issues. While in school, he met fellow student veterans who were interested in alternatives to corporate farming. Brown then organized Growing Veterans to combine their interest in sustainable farming with his interest in social service.

This year will be the program’s third growing season on three acres between Lynden and Bellingham. Veterans and community volunteers raise produce for registered customers and for a produce market at the VA medical center in Seattle. At the moment, five veterans are paid for their work with Growing Veterans, with the hope to expand that number.

Growing Veterans also is involved with satellite farms in Seattle and Olympia.

Changes in the works

The program plans to do much more than grow veggies. Several months ago, nine veterans with the group traveled to Israel to learn about programs there that provide peer support for wounded Israeli soldiers. Ideas from the trip, along with other research, will be used by Growing Veterans to develop its own program to train veterans to become effective mentors for other veterans, Brown said.

Researchers from Seattle University plan to study the impact on veterans who become involved in Growing Veterans, Brown said, and, thanks to federal funding, a research group in Florida will study how effective Growing Veterans is in helping veterans to re-integrate into society. Florida researchers have visited once and plan to visit three more times.

“They told us after the first trip that they’re starting to identify some positive trends,” Brown said.

In a new development, Growing Veterans has leased 40 acres near the Skagit and Snohomish county line from a Vietnam War veteran who used to run an adult family home on the property. If long-range plans develop, Growing Veterans could plant crops and farm part of the property, and use its several buildings as a retreat and training center for veterans’ groups.

Efforts are also underway to start a satellite farm in Skagit County, and one near Pullman in conjunction with Washington State University, Brown said.

Some things will stay the same, including Growing Veterans’ practice of having veterans of all ages and all wars participate. That was a new idea to the Israelis, who have an age limit for veterans to participate in their peer support programs, Brown said. After meeting with the people from Growing Veterans, the Israelis might revise that rule, Brown said.

“The older veterans have years and years of experience of living in the society after going to war, and learning difficult coping skills,” he said. “It gives the younger vets hope, and gives the older veterans the sense of giving back to the younger generation.”

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