Manatee Women Veterans Heal

Camille Van Sant with her teamNature is Distracting

The idea behind Operation EcoVets, an organic farm shared with Easterseals’ Southwest Florida (Sarasota), was to give younger Veterans a place to congregate through gardening and find healing.

EcoVets emanated from the Green Path Veterans Farm project, made possible by the Florida Veterans for Common Sense Fund and is now a separate and independent 501(c)(3) run by Navy Veteran Camille Van Sant who oversees three full-time staff members and about 15 volunteers. The team grows and harvests about 50 pounds of produce a week which is used to feed the approximately 80 preschoolers at Easterseals. Included on the farm is a regenerative Food Forest and the Healing Sensory garden.

The quaint little farm is only a quarter of an acre, but it offers a wide variety of organic produce, micro-greens and medicinal herbs and provides a workable venue for events. Veterans can get together for camaraderie—something that they often lack after leaving the military.

Transitioning to civilian life, Veterans no longer have the support of their buddies. That’s where programs like Vet Rec come in. This event provides an environment of fun, games and sharing a farm meal prepared together, to rebuild that buddy experience.

“Vet Rec does more healing than any psychiatrist. The combat Veteran will trust and bond with other combat Veterans more easily than going to a civilian counselor as they have related experiences that a civilian does not understand. They come back from serving, thinking no one understands them, but here at the farm, they are working side by side other Veterans and engage in casual conversation which leads to bonding. ” said Van Sant.

Farm Brigade is another program, held on third Saturdays of the month, where Veterans and their family/friends meet and learn about growing in Florida from 9 AM to Noon. They also get free plants, seeds, T-shirt, free attendance to their public events and classes. And they can enjoy a free lunch, prepared with items grown on the farm.

Operation Eco Vets’ first program was pairing newly disabled Veterans with differently abled children of the high school students (VIP Academy) who used to reside at Happiness House. Since then, the high school moved to the DeSoto Boys and Girls Club, but they still travel by bus and visit on Wednesdays to help harvest the farm. 

Van Sant came back to her love of horticulture in a roundabout way. She moved to Florida after high school and studied Floriculture and Ornamental Horticulture at Pierce Community College. Unable to get a job above minimum wage, she decided to join the Navy in 1979.

Van Sant compared to Private BenjaminVan Sant jokes that her duties were comparable to Judy Benjamin, referring to the 1980 film Private Benjamin starring Goldie Hawn. With her blonde hair and peppy attitude, some might say Van Sant resembles Hawn.

Stationed in California (San Jose for one year and San Diego for three years), Van Sant’s job assignment, working on helicopter simulators, was actually much more complicated than that of Private Benjamin.

Van Sant said joining the Navy was the best personal development because it helped her to be more outgoing.

“I was painfully shy. I couldn’t even go up to a cashier and ask for change. There’s no time or space for that in the military. They strip you down intentionally then bring you up so that the focus is not on you. It takes any self-consisting part of something bigger allows you to be a part of something bigger than yourself,” said Van Sant.

After her service, Van Sant took a job in Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) in New Jersey, followed by 15 years of real estate with her husband. She and her husband moved to Florida in 2004 to a five-acre property in Myakka City. A few years later, when she turned 50, she finally turned back to her love of horticulture.

Microgreens are also grown by EcoVetsGrowing fruit trees, she made homemade jams and sold them at the Bradenton Farmers Market for a short while.

Van Sant then started volunteering at the Crowley Nature Center Farm Garden, the FL House Institute and the Beneva STC Sustainability house and home and Green Path Veterans Farms which helps Veterans develop vocational and entrepreneurial skills,” said Van Sant.

Van Sant’s team has built gardens for a few non profits in the Manasota area, including All Star Children’s Foundation. They also teach Boot Camp Gardening courses which consist of practical techniques.

“Our farm helps to heal the psychological wounds they have encountered. A lot of Veterans have triggers. Some employers don’t know how to handle that and can end up letting them go. But out here there’s a chance that they’ll help each other. This place gives Vets an opportunity to come together and help each other,” said Van Sant.

Van Sant giving tour to Junior Leadership Manatee studentsVan Sant would like to expand Eco Vets to a location with more land and wooded area, such as Myakka, which might help those Veterans suffering from PTSD to be able to get away and be off on their own.

“This is needed because shelters have rules, such as curfews, and some PTSD victims need a more flexible mechanism in order to cope. Nature is distracting. It distracts you from your troubles,” said Van Sant.

Operation Eco Vets is located at 350 Braden Avenue, Sarasota 34243, and is open every Saturday from 10 AM to 2 PM. Admission price for special events is free for Veterans, and Non-Veterans are charged $10. To find out more about Operation EcoVets, go to, email [email protected] and follow them on Facebook and Instagram @operationecovets

Go to Manatee Women Veterans Week Webpage