In honor of Women’s History Month, we are continuing to recognize and celebrate women through our Top Ten Most Inspiring Women Series. We’ve interviewed many amazing women and we’re excited to introduce you to Collie Turner, founder of Heroic Gardens.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
Heroic Gardens is just about three years old. Our mission is to connect U.S veterans and their families with plants and nature, and we do this in a couple of ways. One, we either help them with a transformation of their backyard space, their patio, their porch, or wherever they call home. Secondly, we also provide virtual horticultural therapy where we actually send customized kits with plants or plant-based materials, and then we unpack the activity with them and a registered horticultural therapist via Zoom. It’s been a fun way for us to expand our operation beyond the Delaware Valley because we can reach anybody anywhere.
“We don’t talk about it in terms of horticultural therapy. We just say we’re here to play with plants.”
Can you explain the benefits of horticultural therapy. What is the science behind it, and how does it help with healing?
There’s a lot of studies out there, and a lot of that continues to be happening from a breakthrough perspective. We tend to shy away from horticultural therapy because a lot of people don’t know what it is. Horticultural therapy is the connection point between working with plants and you have a therapist present. The reason you have a therapist present is, if you are in therapy, or have ever been in therapy, somebody is helping set goals and helping you achieve those goals. Horticultural therapy is no different. There is a trained horticultural therapist that may have a specific degree of goals that they want to help the patient meet.
When you are working with plants, you’re thinking about the tasks. I’ve got to put this plant into soil, and then I’ve got to make sure it’s okay, and then I’ve got to care for it. I’ve got to give it the nutrients that we as humans need, right? Water, air, soil, nutrients, I’ve got to care for it. So when you’re doing something like that, you’re not thinking as inward as you normally would, but you’re thinking.
If someone wants to get involved with Heroic Gardens, what kind of help do you need?
From my perspective, we need the gamut. What I mean by that is come out. Everyone has a green thumb, you just need to learn how to use it. Come out, even if you just want to get some fresh air. We’ve had folks that can’t do much lifting; they can’t really do planting, but guess what they can do? They can be in charge of checking in volunteers. We need help with everything we need. And especially now when things are so limited to be outside and just being able to talk to someone is critical. We need volunteers that can work outside. We also need folks that may want to help deliver some of these custom kits, especially as we expand across the Delaware Valley. On the inside, we are always looking for people that have expertise across the board. If you think you might have a skill set to offer, I guarantee that we need it, and we’d love to have you.
If anybody’s affiliated with a Veteran’s Organization, send them our way. We want to reach as many veterans as we can. Where are the groups in Delaware that we can partner with? We want to provide this to as many folks as possible. If you are a veteran, or affiliated with an organization, let us know and let’s figure out how we can customize and bring plants to you.
What change do you want to see in the world and how do you aid that cause?
Our core values are community, compassion, and joy. We’re a veteran service organization, or VSO, and for us it’s about how many veterans we can touch. There are over 1.6 million veterans that are coming back from service that are reporting having symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, or mental obstacles. Of those 1.6 million, only 400,000 are saying they’re receiving adequate treatment. That’s not a ding on hospitals or the VA; it’s more that perhaps there’s a holistic approach. For us, it’s how many of these veterans can we help for free? Even if it’s just introducing them to plants in nature, but also what’s this commentary on anybody else that’s volunteering?
This isn’t just for veterans. Civilians can be involved. How are we sort of tipping over with what we’re offering to the veteran community into the civilian community? Let’s get back to something that is all around us. It’s in the food we eat. It’s in the clothing we wear. It’s in our building materials. We’re surrounded by plants and yet they tend to be one of those elements in human life that we ignore or destroy.
“Success is very visceral to me.”
How do you define success?
Success is very visceral to me. Somebody asked me recently “How do you feel when you’re happy? Or when you’re sad or whatever?” And I was like, I don’t know, I feel happy, right? If you think about this, if you put your feet on the floor, and you are doing something really wonderful. What do you feel inside? What are all those cells doing inside your body? They’re probably like, ‘this is so cool. This is so amazing!” Can you imagine if you had a job that 99% of the time, that’s how you were feeling? I mean, to me, that’s success, right? What’s happening is, the happiness factor inside of you is actually coming out, and it’s impacting everybody else. When you impact people like that, your success rate goes up.
Some people could say to me, “well, you don’t have a million dollars.” That’s how some people measure themselves, but for me it’s like, am I getting up and making a difference? Am I taking care of myself? Am I being the best person I can? Am I acting with compassion and joy? If I can say yes to those things in a day, that’s a really good day.
What is the most rewarding thing about what you do?
Every single day, I get some communication, whether it’s a phone call, or an email, or a letter in the mail, from a veteran, or a Veteran Service Organization that’s saying “I heard about you, how can we do this? How can we make it happen?” Or even checking in on our existing veterans that we’ve been working with, you know, getting a phone call from them to say “hey, I was thinking about this for when you come over in the spring, would that be okay?”
Helping them work through the process of number one, it’s 100% okay. Number two, this is about choice. You don’t have choice in the military. We give them choice, and they aren’t necessarily used to that. So getting them comfortable with being the project manager on the job, and having them lead the decisions and the discussion. We’re seeing a lot of yard transformations. I call it that because what’s happening is the outside of their property is changing, and as a result inside, they’re changing. Someone told me recently that what we’re seeing within neighborhoods is the Disney effect.
When we go into a veteran’s yard, everybody’s curious. Who is this group? Why do they keep showing up? What’s happening? We see adjacent neighbors start to change their own landscapes; they’re reacting to the positive change that we’re giving. From a social horticultural therapy standpoint, we see our veterans meeting some of their neighbors for the first time and starting relationships.
Tell us about an accomplishment that you consider to be the most significant in your career.
I think it was going back to school at 48 years old for horticultural therapy. It was to get my certificate. For years I wanted to go back to school, but I was terrified. I was terrified of science. And I’m still terrified of science. Science is remarkable and amazing, but there are ways that it’s a digestible thing.
As a result of saying “yeah, I’m going to do this,” I realized I forgot how we learn. I forgot about reading. I forgot about research. I’ve had all these things that can be very important for our daily lives, if we just stop for a minute, right? As a result of doing that, I met some incredible people. Be open to whatever the turn is and how it presents itself. Because for me, that really was a life-changing opportunity.
“Why are you beating yourself up? Why are you setting these unrealistic expectations for yourself? Let’s not be so hard on ourselves.”
If you could go back and share some wisdom or guidance with your younger self, what would it be?
I would say, first of all, let’s not be so hard on ourselves. Why are you beating yourself up? Why are you setting these unrealistic expectations for yourself? You’re conscientious. You have integrity. What you believe is the best, may not be somebody else’s vision. So be okay with it. Be okay with the choices you’ve made. Be okay with the choices other people around you are making and find a way to live with that. Because it’s okay.
Why Collie Turner is On this List
“Collie is actually someone Jenn considers to be one of her mentors, so we were thrilled to see her name on our nominee list! Collie had spoken at our Turning Obstacles into Opportunities event back in May 2020 and inspired many of our attendees with her keynote. In addition, she’s always been passionate about building her nonprofit, Heroic Gardens, advocating for animals and the environment, and delivering much-needed common sense to everyday work situations! We can’t say enough good things about Collie.”
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