A group effort between Dover AFB and 4H clubs are helping children of servicemembers start their own gardens

Family usually is the first thing on the minds of military personnel as they deploy overseas. While they are facing the experiences of war, their spouses and children attempt to live normal lives back home.

But "normal" hardly describes the everyday lives of those who remain behind. They have the ever-present worries about any loved one facing constant danger, punctuated by moments of heart-stopping dread whenever the phone rings or someone comes to the front door.

The uniformed services realize children are hit particularly hard when one or both parents are away and all have a number of programs to help ease the tension of worrying about mommy or daddy. Experience has shown, however, that it's not an easy job and that sometimes those programs can use a little outside help.

Enter the Burpee Seed Company, which in conjunction with personnel at Dover Air Force Base is working to help children – and by extension, their parents – deal with the stress of wartime service.

The program echoes the "Victory Gardens" of World War II, where families were encouraged to tear up their lawns and use the land to grow their own vegetables – helping families save money and allowing the government send the food to soldiers overseas.

This newer program is part of a grant project between the military services and the 4-H, which is administered in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said Marlene Glasscock, research assistant professor at Kansas State University with the 4-H/Military Partnership Project. It got underway because Burpee wanted to help veterans and their families, she said.

"They were looking for a way to get these seeds out to servicemen coming back from Afghanistan and their families, as well as veterans, so they can plant them and harvest the results," she said.

"We do a lot of gardening projects with youth on bases and installations in 4-H clubs," Glasscock added.

The children can have the gardens and the programs and learn about nutrition, cooking and healthy living, she said.

Dover AFB is participating in Burpee's "Welcome Home Garden" program through its Youth Services Program. It's is federally-funded effort with 4-H clubs and, locally, the University of Delaware, to teach youngsters how to plant and tend gardens.

Learning about growing plants and taking care of them gives children of deployed parents something to do other than spend their time worrying.

The program is free, as is the information needed to start a healthy garden, said Roxanne Lee, director of youth programs at the base.

The base youth center received approximately 350 "Welcome Home" packages containing packets of seeds, along with instructions and even a recipe book that highlights ways to prepare healthy dishes featuring lettuce, carrots, spinach, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and sweet peppers, all of which can be grown from the seeds provided.

The packages also contain seeds for popular flowers such as zinnias and marigolds to help brighten up each garden.

The program is open to all children of military personnel and their parents, even if they are not stationed at Dover AFB. Children from all over Delaware are taking part in the program, including those whose parents are members of the other uniformed services, Lee said.

Studies have shown that gardening, with its emphasis on the care of living things, is both instructive and relaxing, particularly for children. Properly supervised, the garden not only can relieve anxiety and worry, it can provide a fulfilling experience when ripe vegetables are harvested at the end of each season.

While it's early in the season and still too cold outside to begin planting, the program already has proven very popular, with almost half the Welcome Home packets having already been handed out, Lee said.

"When we were starting this, the kids were more excited than the parents," she noted.

Some patches of ground at the base Youth Center already are being cleared for when planting conditions are right, Lee said, and kids who spend time at the center will be taking care of each garden.