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Veterans Stand-down canceled, Employment Base Camp finds new home
Sun Journal - 1/26/2021
Jan. 26—New Bern's annual Veterans Stand-down, which assists disabled, disadvantaged and homeless veterans, has become yet another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Normally held in February, organizers cited ongoing CDC crowd limit and safety requirements in their decision to cancel this year's event, which began in 2014 and was held most recently at the West New Bern Recreation Center.
Sponsored by the NC Veterans Employment Base Camp and Organic Garden (VEBCOG) along with NCWorks Career Center and Cherry Point Baptist Church, the event serves homeless and disadvantaged veterans as well as family members of veterans and active duty personnel.
The Veterans Stand-Down primarily benefits homeless veterans in Craven, Pamlico, Jones and Carteret counties but is open to veterans of all eras, active duty personnel, family members and caregivers. Services provided at past Veterans Stand-Downs have included: veterans benefits counseling, homeless prevention, suicide prevention, recovery and mental health, housing resources, women vets-specific services, educational programs and employment opportunities.
But while the decision to cancel the 2021 Stand-down was difficult for organizers, it has also allowed time for another program that benefits area veterans to make some much-needed changes.
VEBCOG founder Lovay Wallace-Singleton, who also serves as Veterans Stand-down executive director, has been working overtime for nearly a year to relocate the garden and its buildings, tools, fruit trees, and growing beds from its former home near the Stanley White Recreation Center to a more visible site at 1235 Pollock Street.
Wallace-Singleton said she hopes to hold a grand opening at the new site this spring.
"We're still in the process of trying to get things going. Moving a garden is like seven times worse than moving a house, but we're getting there," she joked. "And then moving a garden during a pandemic when most of your volunteers can't come on-site, oh my goodness."
Formed in 2012, VEBCOG works to help disabled, disadvantaged and homeless veterans acquire employment, agricultural skills and veteran-specific information. The garden provides transitional employment for homeless veterans as well as access to fresh food for community members through an on-site farmers market.
Veterans who join VEBCOG work in the garden planting and harvesting fruits and vegetables, from cucumbers and bell peppers to corn, beans and peaches. They are also provided the opportunity, through VEBCOG 's partnership with N.C. Works and Craven Community College, to attend resume classes and job fairs and seek advice on legal issues.
Wallace-Singleton said the decision to relocate was based on both the original site's location in a flood zone as well as the City of New Bern's ongoing debate over where to relocate the Stanley White Recreation Center. She said she began scouting potential properties last September.
"It was really weighing on me. I was discussing it at church, I was discussing it at all kinds of places," said Wallace-Singleton. "We had offers to move the whole location out to Pamlico County but I really didn't want to do that because of the (Duffyfield) neighborhood that we're currently serving and we have a relationship built up with them."
An answer came from an unexpected source — Wallace-Singleton's church. Bishop P.O. Rodgers of Dayspring Ministries offered the VEBCOG Board of Directors an adjacent plot of land being used as a parking lot for the same rental deal that the Board formerly had with the City, $1 a month.
Though the site is somewhat smaller than VEBCOG's previous home, Wallace-Singleton said the deal has worked out well, allowing her to downsize while still maintaining the garden's essentials.
"I'm ex-military, so the first thing I did was start planning and measuring and seeing how we could fit everything in here," she said.
Much of the moving work was accomplished with the assistance of volunteers with the Single Marine Program from MCAS Cherry Point.
"We were scheduling things, getting the fence put up, all the buildings had to be moved over to the site. It was a Herculean effort if everything is going right. Then the pandemic hits and we're like 'What are we going to do?' We kind of just stopped everything."
During the move, Wallace-Singleton said she began questioning whether the Veterans Stand-down could be managed at the same time.
"We considered doing a drive-through stand-down. But even then it was like 'Do we expose the people who would be working the drive-through to whatever?' So we said okay, let's do the thing we have to do, which is complete this move."
In addition to being more accessible to traffic and less prone to flooding, Wallace-Singleton said the Pollock Street location has also opened up new opportunities.
VEBCOG has partnered with the nearby Boys & Girls Club Teen Center to run the garden's annual farmers market. They will also be handling the site's vermicomposting business, which uses worms to produce organic soil containing a diversity of plant nutrients and beneficial microorganisms. Additionally, Wallace-Singleton said she hopes to start a partnership with area restaurants that would allow the teens to collect their vegetable scraps for use in the growing process.
VEBCOG recently received a financial donation for a new trailer and storage shed. Grant money has also allowed for the purchase of a mobile bee hive. With the addition of more flags and signage before the grand opening, Wallace-Singleton said the Pollock Street location will be smaller but far more visible than the old site.
"We were looking for a smaller footprint which works well for what we're trying to do with working with the kids in this neighborhood, having workshops," she said. "I'm really excited about the possibilities of this site. I think it's going to be great."
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