By Erin Delmore
“There wasn’t a lot of jobs in Newark asking for someone to survey or make maps,” Rutgers graduate Rodney Spencer said.
After serving his country in the U.S. Army, Spencer couldn’t find a way to put his skills to use at home.
“I was living in my car, I was homeless, my support system was gone, my marriage was broken up and by the luck of the draw, I found this program,” Spencer said.
Now he’s a graduate of Rutgers Veterans Environmental Technology Solutions program — an effort to put unemployed vets in the Newark area back to work.
“It’s just nice being here, seeing the community connect with a really valuable resource — the returning veterans,” Senior Program Coordinator Jan Zientek said.
New Jersey ranks among the worst in the nation when it comes to unemployment among veterans. According to the most recent Census Bureau data, nearly 8 percent of New Jersey vets are out of work — that’s 1.4 percent higher than the state average.
The program offers more than job training; it helps with the readjustment to civilian life, according to Matthew Smith. He says that working with plants can even counteract anxiety and PTSD.
“Plants naturally just give off a soothing environment for people, they’re stimulating enough but not too stimulating. They’re familiar and appealing, and they’re alive and dynamic, so they have a lot of great traits that help out veterans,” said Smith, a program assistant.
“These butterhead lettuce were started from seedlings. We planted these seeds in the seedling trays, and once they get to a certain size, we take them from the seedling trays and transplant them into these troughs that we have here,” Spencer said.
This hands-on classroom offers real-world job experience. And at a balmy 75 degrees, it’s keeping Newark’s food pantries — including one next door stocked with fresh greens year-round.
“We donate about 300 heads of lettuce weekly to the food bank. The seedlings that we grow are going to be sold to support the community garden around the area and to educate people about the food system,” Smith said.
Smith served five years in the Army — including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He says veterans share a bond, so they employed recent grad Spencer to help usher in the next class.
“I can be somewhat of a bridge and tell them what to expect, and let them know that what they do serves not only us, but also our community as well,” Spencer said.
It’s another example of giving back, from a group who’s already given so much.