While the 2015 class of the Rutgers Veterans Environmental and Technology Solutions (VETS) program graduated in December and the ground outside isn’t ready yet for spring planting, some of the program’s graduates worked through the cold months of winter to make sure those at the Willing Heart Community Center always had fresh vegetables.

Rashad Madyun, a U.S. veteran and graduate of the VETS 2015 class, is interested in taking the business and marketing skills he learned in the program to start his own online marketing firm. Under the direction of Rodney Spencer, the program assistant and 2014 VETS graduate, Rashad continued to hone his skills in aquaponics and horticulture in the program’s greenhouse all winter long to the benefit of Willing Heart Community Care Center and its recipients.

Rashad Maydun and volunteer Faust Linette get their hands dirty tending to their bounty at Willing Heart Community Care Center in Newark.

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In 2015, the Rutgers VETS program donated more than 1,900 vegetables weighing 500 pounds to the Willing Heart Community Care Center through weekly drop offs. The veterans also raised and donated hundreds of seedlings, so Willing Heart patrons can grow their own tomatoes and herbs.

The Willing Heart Community Care Center appreciates the donations.  “Programs like Rutgers VETS are exactly what our City needs,” said Maryanna Williford, program director of the Willing Heart Community Care Center. “They are not only helping to train our City’s veterans with skills, but they also stress getting involved in the community.”

The Willing Heart Community Care Center and the VETS program are neighbors at 555 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, due to the generosity and support of the Metropolitan Resurrection Community Development Corporation, an arm of the Metropolitan Baptist Church.

Dr. Amy Rowe, VETS co-director, noted “The classroom portion of the VETS program provides unemployed veterans with the skills they need to get back to work, but the hands-on field experience has come through partnerships and engagement with the community. The trainees work to revitalize distressed neighborhoods through the installation of community gardens, landscape beautification, and by teaching the citizens of Newark how to eat healthy and grow their own food.”

The fresh produce is grown by trainees in the greenhouse all year long, but the VETS program also manages a community garden down the street from the Center that will provide additional vegetables once the growing season starts.

Each Tuesday and Thursday, Willing Heart’s food pantry is open to eligible members of the community. The vegetables are organized by Willing Heart volunteer staff and added to grocery bags full of fresh and healthy foods. Each week, hundreds ofNewark citizens come to the community center to obtain food packages, a hot meal, or clothing.

The VETS program is currently recruiting veterans from Essex County for its 2016 class. For more information, please visit www.rutgersvets.org.