Veterans get new start through greenhouse program

BY Lauren Wanko, Correspondent |

At the Veterans Greenhouse, employees nurture young plants creating new life as these vets transform their own lives.

“The greenhouse was extremely therapeutic for me. It allowed me to think about my past and conditions that were going on mentally with me and I began to heal slowly but surely,” said greenhouse manager Noel Dunn.

Located on the VA Lyons campus near Basking Ridge, the greenhouse is part of MTI Integrated Business Development, a nonprofit dedicated to employing previously homeless veterans. Many of those vets battled PTSD and substance abuse, like Dunn, an army veteran who first served in the Vietnam War.

What was it like? “Didn’t have any emotions, lack of sleep, trying to keep other people alive,” Dunn said.

Dunn says he sought help for years after the war but couldn’t find it until he went to the VA. The organization connected him to the greenhouse.

“Everyday gives us a different opportunity of changing a veteran’s life from homelessness to productive employment,” said MTI Integrated Business Development Founder and CEO Wendell Knight.

Knight says the greenhouse employs about 25 veterans each year. They’re paid through various grants. Veterans are referred to the greenhouse by the VA and other organizations within the community. The goal is to prepare vets for the workforce and help them eventually find competitive employment in a variety of fields. Since 2010 more than 100 veterans have found jobs. Beyond the greenhouse, job coaches provide other support services, like resume writing and mock interviewing.

“We, veterans, need to reach out to the other veterans more than anything,” said Dunn.

Army veteran Efrain Mercado says he’s grateful he can help other veterans.

“We are working with veterans who can actually trust in us and open up to us because they understand we know where they’re coming from by having gone through what they’ve gone through,” Mercado said.

Mercado just got his master’s degree. Job coach Stefan Auti is applying to a master’s program now.

“I’m really grounded in the fact that I truly enjoy what I do,” he said.

The Veterans Greenhouse is open to the public seven days a week. They sell their plants and flowers on site. They are only closed January through February. They also sell their plants at corporate locations in the area. Knight hopes to eventually build a greenhouse offsite so they can offer more jobs and attract even more customers.

The revenue from the flowers, herbs and vegetables goes back into the business, says Knight. Dunn hopes to get a college degree. Right now though, he’s enjoying this job.

“With the plants it’s like everything comes from a seed and so all of us became like Johnny Appleseed,” Dunn said.

This veteran will keep planting seeds for the greenhouse and for his fellow veterans.