Air Force veteran's growing charity helps fellow vets heal
A major winter storm was predicted on a recent Friday afternoon, but with the growing season on the horizon, Marshall Fox didn't want to waste time.
So, with the help of a few hardy volunteers who hauled heavy barrels of spent grain called brewery mash, he began tilling the soil beneath the frame of an unfinished hoophouse outside American Legion Post 771 in Gurnee.
"The more we can prep and get ready for the spring weather, the better," said Fox, co-founder of Growing Healthy Veterans, a nonprofit organization that helps veterans heal from traumas by working the earth, growing plants and developing other skills.
The organization's two hoop houses in Gurnee and an expansive plot of land in North Chicago also are places where veterans find support and comfort.
"We basically get our hands dirty," said Fox, who lives in civilian housing at the Great Lakes Naval Station near North Chicago. "It's been found over and over that communing with the soil, as they say, is very therapeutic."
The organization has a lot happening at different locations, with more in the works. But it was happenstance that Fox found this path.
Fox served as a machinist in the Air Force from 1984 to 1988, working on aircraft at Williams Air Force Base in Arizona.
He didn't see combat in that role and admits his service was nothing like what many vets experienced. But years later he would come to know the effects of active service on fellow veterans and he looked for a way to help.
After the Air Force, the Skokie native held various jobs.
"I worked downtown. I had the whole works. But it wasn't satisfying," he said.
About six years ago, while working as a school bus driver, he took an organic urban farming class at the College of Lake County and met Grayslake resident Ellen Ewing at a job fair for veterans. The pair opened an aquaponics business together, and while the partnership later dissolved and they went separate ways, Fox kept in touch with Ewing's son, Lukan Paulus.
Certified in sustainable agriculture from CLC and in horticulture therapy from Chicago Botanic Garden, Paulus is a Quaker with a strong belief in the obligation to care for veterans. He eventually reconnected with Fox, who by then was working in the transportation department at the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago.
Fox introduced Paulus to an occupational therapist at the facility and the idea of incorporating gardening as therapy blossomed. The pair founded Growing Healthy Veterans in 2016.
"The more I worked at the VA, the more I saw the scars of war," Fox said. "It was a chance to serve again."
For the first two years, the organization used garden plots at the Prairie Crossing community in Grayslake where Ewing lives. But the search continued for spots closer to Lovell.
Growing Healthy Veterans eventually secured 2.5 acres at the American Legion in Gurnee, which welcomed the gardening program as a way of growing its membership. As that operation was going through the village permit process, the city of North Chicago agreed to provide 30,000 square feet of land along Arrington Drive for a community garden.
"North Chicago Commons," operated by Growing Healthy Veterans, opened in June 2018 as a place where veterans, active military personnel and local residents can grow and cultivate sustainable produce.
About the same time, the approvals for the American Legion property were secured. Former NBA basketball player and well-known urban farmer Will Allen donated the framework for two hoophouses, which were erected with the help of program participants. Plans are to enclose the second hoop house when the weather is favorable.
Fox said it can be daunting to run both locations simultaneously, but those feelings pass quickly.
"I feel like it's my duty as a veteran -- everyone's duty should be to help these guys," Fox said. "This is my way of doing it."
Upcoming projects include a geodesic dome for seedling and microgreen production and horticulture therapy activities. A pilot program in cooperation with Shir Hadash synagogue in Wheeling will begin Feb. 23 with the planting of pumpkin seedlings.
Growing Healthy Veterans also is an outlet for those who come before Lake County's Veterans Treatment and Assistance Court.
"One of the guys just graduated from the Lake County veterans court, and at the graduation and afterward he said Growing Healthy Veterans has changed his life," Fox said.
• Do you know of veterans helping other veterans? Share your story at firstname.lastname@example.org.