Part therapy, part art installation and part fundraiser, the project has created a raised strawberry field in the shape of an American flag. Veterans tend the strawberries, transplanted from abandoned fields, and sell preserves they make from second-harvest fruit.
The project, spearheaded by artist Lauren Bon and psychiatrist Jonathan Sherin, associate chief of mental health for the center, aims to promote recovery and reintegration for the veterans. It also is helping revitalize a campus that housed recovering Civil War soldiers and now serves the more than 500,000 veterans in the Los Angeles area.
The flag and its surroundings, about the size of a football field, holds red-berried plants growing in rows of raised white pipes in a ground coconut mixture. Reclaimed trees and other plants outline the flag's blue upper left corner, creating an open-air teahouse, where visitors can sit and drink tea, relax or meditate.
The veterans and teahouse guests are the "stars" on the American flag, says Bon, 47, granddaughter of diplomat and philanthropist Walter Annenberg. She is one of three directors of the private Annenberg Foundation and heads Metabolic Studio, an art studio and charitable activity of the foundation, which supports the Strawberry Flag project.
Bon estimates Metabolic Studio has spent about $100,000 to cover veterans' salaries, events and materials. But many of the resources were free. The reclaimed plants and the water from the Los Angeles river and rooftops came without a cost, and the VA is letting the project use the space rent-free.
"We're doing this sculpture as a way to activate the site and a way to promote resources that support patriotism," Bon says.
The grounds where the Strawberry Flag sits, and most of the surrounding buildings, were empty and only used occasionally as sets for movies or TV shows, before the project arrived, says site historian Janet Owen Driggs of the Metabolic Studio.
A pond filled with fish and watercress sits at the end of each pipeline, cleaning and adding minerals to the water. Veterans and visitors pedal solar-powered stationary bikes next to the flag to pump water into the tubes.
Bobby Shelton, 75, a Korean War veteran, carefully checks each strawberry plant and the pond every day.
The project is a "wonderful idea," Shelton says. "It's creative. I like the purpose of it. I'm proud to be a part of the organization. It gave me a new energy, a new source in life, motivated me to do more."
Every weekday afternoon, tea and bread with treats including strawberry jam or sausage rolls are served at the flag. Twice a month, high tea is held, and veterans and visitors come together to talk and enjoy – literally – the fruits of their labor.
'It raises my self-esteem'
Deborah Peterson oversees the kitchen where veterans make the preserves and prepare for daily teas. Weekly "jam sessions" are social gatherings as well as a chance for veterans to learn how to make jam, she says. Until the flag's own strawberries are mature enough to harvest, the veterans are using berries from the VA farmers market, and getting help from a local jam company.
Jerome Larson, 40, a veteran of the first Gulf War, is developing the print studio that makes maps of the VA campus and will supply the jam jars with labels featuring vets.
"A lot of us (veterans) are in recovery, and we're just trying to move forward to getting established in the community, and this is a great way to do that," Larson says. "It raises my self-esteem and helps me focus on positive things in my life."
Back at the flag, Charles Warren, 55, a Vietnam veteran, leads spin classes on the eight stationary bikes. The flag is a "pretty big deal," Warren says, and reminds him of the military, where everyone works together to accomplish the mission. "For them to come in with smiles and open arms and befriend us, it means the world to me," he says.
The flag began with a few veterans in the VA's compensated-work-therapy program and has expanded to more than a dozen, plus volunteers, says project coordinator Rochelle Fabb. She notes the parallel between the flag and the veterans: The workers are reclaiming the flag's strawberries, and the veterans are reclaiming their lives.
"For me, it's been about the people and the rejuvenation that I've seen," she says.
•For a virtual tour of the Strawberry Flag, visit strawberryflag.org.