By: Tim Greene, Member of the Veterans Home of California, Yountville and contributor to the Obsveration Post
Indeed we do! In a field right in back of the Central Warehouse, the Home has a brand-new, professionally-built chicken coop, provided by the Tug McGraw Foundation, that currently accommodates five hens and two spirited roosters.
HOW THE CHICKEN COOP CAME TO BE BUILT
The Home is fortunate to have on campus (in the Administration Building) the headquarters of the Tug McGraw Foundation (hereafter TMF), co-founded by a friendly and high energy Director named Jennifer Brusstar. During a fact-gathering interview, Jennifer describes for me her growing interest in reviving the old Veterans Home tradition of food sustainability.
The Home in 1884 The Home Today is home to a 1000 veterans
Jennifer believes that a return to farming is just one of several programs that could help resolve many of the perennial conflicts affecting our Home community. She has studied the early mission of the Home, as practiced in the late 1800s, in which livestock, especially hogs and chickens, were a big part of the Home’s sustainability. Jennifer observes that “there are strong bodies of research that demonstrate how connecting with nature, gardening, farming, and raising animals, improves and increases mental health, as well as psychological and spiritual development.”
Through funding efforts and community outreach, TMF started a small back-to-farming project called the Brain Food Garden (near the picnic area), currently maintained by members from the Veterans Home Transitional Program and TMF Board and Staff. Jennifer explains, “Our Garden’s mission is to work with the Home’s Recreational Therapist to identify opportunities for outdoor exercise and therapy, to implement them, and, finally, to measure the outcome values. The Garden serves a variety of purposes, including growing vegetables for a local homeless shelter and offering opportunities for intergenerational activities.”
Tug's Cuz, Frank and Jennifer Home Adminstrator, Don and Rec Therapist Gigi
At one of the quarterly Garden BBQs hosted by TMF, Home member Ian Campbell approached Jennifer and asked her, “What about getting some chickens?” She replied, “Why chickens?” With a smile, Ian responded, “The sounds of caring for chickens take me back to my childhood.” As a result of this one exchange in the Garden, TMF was inspired to begin creating the chicken project.
To demonstrate and meet TMF’s chicken project goal, Jennifer called upon the aid of her assistant, Ava Talamantez; TMF board member, Frank Henderson (Tug’s cousin); the Home’s Recrea-tional Therapist, Gigi Morgan; the Home’s Health and Safety Officer, Jennifer Leslie; and, most importantly, Ian Campbell and Steve Rodzinski, participants in the Brain Food Garden.
While her team was pulling together budgets, design, and curriculum, Jennifer paid a visit to the French Laundry’s coop in Yountville. She says, “I fell in love with the simplicity and the community feel of it.” Knowing she looked at the Rolls Royce of coops, Jennifer quickly realized that it was way out of her budget.
After searching online, Jennifer eventually found a group in Sebastopol called Wine Country Coops that had just what she was looking for. Her contact with this company surprisingly led to a productive connection with the owner, James Stamp, and his son, Gareth. Jennifer explained to the Stamp family that, by their helping to expand the Garden to include chickens, they would be greatly increasing the therapeutic value of the Home’s outdoor work programs. James Stamp was so moved by the mission of the project and the Foundation’s efforts that he and his family not only donated the materials to build the coop, they also came out and worked side by side with TMF and the Home members to build it. “Most astonishing,” says Jennifer, “was my discovery that Wine Country Coops was the same company that built the coop at the French Laundry.” Jennifer adds, “I believe there are no coincidences. Ava and I must have looked at over 500 coops before we landed on the Wine Country site.”
The Stampe Family, Steve and other members of the Home's transisiton program
I ask Jennifer to describe the actual construction of the coop. She explains, “In the beginning we had a lot of disagreement on how best to build the exterior fencing to accommodate the actual Wine Country coop. We all agreed it would need to be like Ft. Knox against predators – foxes, raccoons, and even mountain lions. In the end, it was a total community effort; the Home’s Transition group, together with TMF, mapped out the area, cleared the space, and framed and wired the exterior.
In anticipation of the Wine Country coop arrival, the TMF team pushed forward with their Ft. Knox plan. Jennifer tells me, “The team thought of everything to insure the safety and well-being of the chickens, from extending the mesh wiring to prevent animals from digging in, to a raised floor to give the chickens a dry place when it rains. The raised floor is often referred to as “the chicken’s dance floor;” a disco ball is the only thing missing.”
With Fort Knox in place, Operation Egg Plant was now ready to receive Wine Country Coops’ beautiful donation to the project. What is distinctive about WC’s chicken coops is that they are out-of-the-ordinary in design. Each coop is hand-crafted and numbered. The coop that Wine Country donated to the Brain Food Garden is a charming red and white, cottage-style hen house. It accommodates six to eight chickens and features laying space, ladder access for the chickens, and an egg-collecting door.
Jennifer continually emphasizes her back-to-basics philosophy of moving towards sustainability through gardening and outdoor therapy. When asked about the outcomes of this project, she explains, “The eggs the members collect and the veggies they harvest are donated and delivered to Mission Solano’s Bridge for Life Center, where they are used to supplement their meal program. To date, the project has made over ten deliveries. Fifty percentof the clients at Bridge For Life are veterans who are getting back on their feet. Ian and Steve are the principal reason this program is a success - two vets collecting and growing for other vets.”
Steve above with the chickens, Gigi and Jennifer making a harvest and egg delivery to Mission Solano
I ask, “What’s next for the TugMcGraw Foundation at the Home?” Jennifer responds, optimistically, “I’d like next to see us bring in horses. That would be restoring real history at the Home. I think our members would enjoy caring for horses, and I believe it would significantly increase their quality-of-life while living here.”
IAN AND STEVE
The coop – a.k.a. ‘The Egg Plant’ - is maintained by two volun-teers from Section A, Ian Campbell and Steve Rodzinski. This is a continuation of their involvement in the Veterans Home Transitional Program, run by Gigi Morgan.
As the chicken coop was being built, Gigi asked the men in the gardening program for volunteers to care for the new batch of chickens that would soon arrive. Ian and Steve immediately volunteered, and they have since become the faithful caretakers of the chicken coop. Jennifer likes to think of these two guys as embodying “Ying and Yang” - that is, opposing yet complimentary personalities that inspire one another.
Ian Campbell (73) and Steve Rodzinski (61), are both relatively new to the Home environment, each arriving about 18 months ago. Ian, articulate and outspoken, comes from the Big Sur area. He has a background in ranching. His grandfather, a distinguished Texas Ranger, raised him on a horse and cattle ranch in Texas. “My father was in the Army,” says Ian, “and was always gone. I was a real Army brat,” he laughs. “We were called ‘brats’ because we got away with a lot more than kids usually do!” Like his father, Ian’s military service was in the Army.
Soft-spoken Steve comes from Sacramento. “I have no farming experience at all,” he says. “I had a dog, but that was my only experience with animals. I’ve mostly been involved in industrial work. When I grew up, the closest I ever got to a chicken was in a store!” Steve’s military service was also in the Army.
A VISIT TO THE COUP
It’s early morning, and I accompany Ian and Steve on their morning trek to feed the chickens. Steve George, OP Photographer, is also with us to take pictures. We walk through a gate and over some course and bumpy ground to get to the coop enclosure. As we approach, the one-year-old chickens are immediately wary of our presence. A strutting and protective Silkie Bantam rooster, “Snowball,” starts fiercely crowing and doesn’t stop all the while we are there.
Ian and Steve enter the coop and talk to their little flock, encouraging them out of hiding at the dark end of the enclosure. Gradually the birds emerge. The one they call ‘Gertrude’ heads for the gate, always trying to escape.
The guys perform their chores. They put out fresh water and then scatter feed – a daily egg-laying formula plus a twice-a-week special mixture containing corn. Ian collects the eggs; he gathers 3-5 per day. The keepers end by seeing that all their birds are in good shape and good health. (A few days later, Ian tearfully informs me that he found Gertrude dead one morning, he doesn’t know why. She was his favorite - a beautiful Speckled Sussex hen.)
The enclosure currently houses seven chickens altogether. Snowball, a fluffy, pure-white Silkie Bantam rooster. is the dominant male. The other rooster, ‘Norbert‘ (the guys call him ‘Loud-mouth’), is a light-brown Bearded Silkie who spends his time quietly shepherding the hens. Silkies are known for their beautiful, luxuriant appearance. They have five rather than the usual four chicken toes and are often used as ornamental home pets.
Among the hens in the flock is a variety of colorful types: two Dutch Welsummers (the ‘Twins’), one Americauna, and one Black Laced Red Wyandotte that the guys call “Big Red.” The hens each produce about three eggs per week, each one a distinctive color - from buff-colored to blue-green to chocolate-brown.
The Boys and the Girls
The chores end by Steve locking the coop and our departing. (Ed: Ian and Steve invite interested Home members to come up and visit the chicken coop, especially around 8:30 AM, when they perform their daily chores. Although you have to walk over a bit of rough ground to get to the chicken enclosure, you’ll find the experience well worth the effort – especially to hear Snowball’s crowing upon your arrival.)
A SECOND JENNIFER – JENNIFER LESLIE
This beautiful array of chickens was donated to the Home by Jennifer Leslie, the Home’s Health and Safety Officer, and a person who keeps a variety of animals at her own home. Jennifer tells me, “I ordered the chicks from a hatchey in Missouri. They were born on February 16, 2015. The hatchery shipped them in a box containing a little water, although their residual yolk-sack would have been enough for them to survive for up to three days in the mail.”
Jennifer continues, “I picked them up at the Post Office when they were only two days old, and I brought them home to a warm brooder that had lights and finely-powered food and fresh water with vitamins. You have to dunk their little beaks in sugarwater to get them to start drinking, and you keep them in this very warm environment for several weeks to protect them from cold and chill.” She continues, “I raised them until they were five months old. Then I took half of them to the Home and kept the other half, the siblings.” Jennifer declares enthusiastically, “To me, chickens are relaxing! They can live over seven years. They really become your pets.”
Jennifer is a keeper of many more animals at her home. In addition to chickens, she looks after two white shepherd dogs, a cat, some rabbits, and four beehives. Sadly, she recently lost a horse that she has had for the past thirty years. Jennifer describes herself as a devoted lover of animals. “My pet chickens get to live out their lives, even after they’ve stopped laying eggs.”
I ask Jennifer if there are any health hazards attached to the Home chicken coop. She responds, “No, just wash your hands. She adds, “The chickens have all been vaccinated against disease.”
ABOUT THE TUG MCGRAW FOUNDATION (TMF)
Tug McGraw was a legendary pitcher for the New York Mets (1965-1974) and the Philadelphia Phillies (1974-1984). A few more items of interest about Tug McGraw: he was raised in Napa and Vallejo and served in the US Marine Corps. Tug played many ballgames on our Home’s Borman Field. His coined the phrase, “Ya Gotta Believe,” which hangs on a sign above the entrance to one of the Home’s worksheds. Tug’s son, Tim McGraw, is a Grammy-award-winning recording artist and actor. He is also the Foundation’s Honorary Chairman.
Tug McGraw Raised in Vallejo and Napa : The Marine, The Miracle Met, and The heart of the Phillies
Tug McGraw left an indelible mark on baseball and on his fans. He touched the lives of thousands of children and adults, both as a baseball player and then after his retirement. He worked tirelessly throughout his career on behalf of many community and charitable organizations. In 2003, Tug was diagnosed with brain cancer. Prior to his death, he established the Tug McGraw Foundation to inspire and drive research that would build greater understanding of brain disease.
Recognizing that other areas of brain research, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), inform the science surrounding brain cancer, TMF widened its scope in 2009 to include a broader spectrum of the neurosciences...
Jennifer and her son Jack
Jennifer Brusstar is co-founder of the Tug McGraw Foundation. Following twenty years as a flight attendant, Jennifer became Tug McGraw’s caregiver. Her husband was Tug’s teammate for the Phillies. Her passion in wanting to help others with neurological disorders and disease was driven by the love for her son, Jack, who at age two was diagnosed with Autism. Today at eighteen he can often be seen at Borman Field playing with the Home’s Mixed Nutts Team, which TMF supports. Jennifer says, “Now that’s another story - how TMF and the Mixed Nutts paired up to create an outdoor therapy program around America’s favorite pastime.”
Jennifer believes that “ an important part of TMF’s mission is to continue to demonstrate to the State of California (CalVet) how a non-profit can compliment and give support to their veterans’ programs. By doing so, we are maximizing resources and funding, as well as demonstrating best practices by evaluating, measuring, and sharing the results with others. The chicken project falls under that umbrella.”
Jennifer concludes our interview by telling me, “It’s an exciting time for the Tug McGraw Foundation to be part of the Home and to help preserve it for future generations of veterans. I’m hoping that we can play a role in supporting veterans on a peer-to-peer basis across the country. And I believe gardening and animals is one great way to make it happen.”
(Ed: To learn more about TMF’s nationwide programs or to get involved with the Brain Food Garden, visitwww.tugmcgraw.org or stop by TMF’s office in the Administration Building and ask for Ava Talamantez.)
Source: Veterans Home of California, Yountville
Publication: Observation Post, August 2016, Vol 2 No. 19, Written by Tim Greene, Veteran and Home Member
Photo Credits Veterans: Steve George, Home Member
Photo Credits Tim McGraw: MLB and Mets
Photo Credits Tug McGraw: MLB, Phillies and Mets