Military Communities Fight Isolation of COVID-19 with USO Gardening Club in South Korea

By Danielle DeSimone

After months spent quarantining indoors through the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s one thing that everyone in the world has wanted to do: go outside. And what better way to do so – and to improve physical and mental health – than by gardening? That’s why service members and military families stationed in South Korea have rolled up their sleeves, gotten their hands dirty and joined the USO Humphreys’ Gardening Club.

The Importance of Getting Outdoors During a Global Pandemic

Spending time outdoors and connecting with nature is crucial to ensuring good mental and physical health. However, according to the American Public Health Association, Americans spend 90% of their time indoors – and that was before the isolation requirements and stay-at-home orders of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The world is rightfully concerned about the physical effects and risks of the virus. However, the negative effects on the mental health of all those stuck inside, experiencing the isolation and anxiety of a global pandemic, can also be an issue.

For the military community, the loneliness and stress caused by COVID-19 can be even more challenging. They must deal with the concerns of a global pandemic in addition to the pressure of their military life and daily duties, many of which have put them right on the front lines of the virus. Service members and military families who are stationed or deployed overseas must also tackle all of this while far away from loved ones and home.

But when social distancing is the norm, especially in countries like South Korea with strict coronavirus regulations, how do service members and military families get outdoors and take some time to themselves to relax?

USO Humphreys’ answer: Through the simple joy of gardening.

Gardening Provides a Boost for Morale and Health

Photo credit USO Humphreys

Service members in South Korea are getting outside during COVID-19 quarantines by planting vegetables with USO Humphreys’ Gardening Club planting kits.

USO Humphreys, located on Camp Humphreys in South Korea, has been busy throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The USO team had to quickly switch gears once health and safety regulations were implemented on-base, and began providing the military community with social distanced and virtual programs. Doing so has been important for maintaining morale at this large Army base, located just 60 miles south of the North Korean border.

Recently, USO Humphreys has distributed more than 200 USO Humphreys Gardening Club starter kits to service members and military families around base, which come equipped with a pot, soil, seeds and instructions. Joining the gardening club is free – participants just have to pick up a starter kit, which is meant to promote “healthy attitudes and positive growth.”

Although social distancing requires participants in the gardening club to bring their plants to life in their own homes, the program has created a virtual community of green thumbs coming together to grow plants and stay entertained. USO staff have shared videos on their Facebook page over the past few months, providing participants in the club with gardening tips and instructional how-to videos on raise-bed gardens.

Gardening in support of the troops is also nothing new – it follows a long tradition, reaching back to World War I, when Americans planted “Victory Gardens” in their backyards to grow vegetables to feed the troops fighting overseas.

But during the COVID-19 pandemic, gardening can be so much more than a fun activity or historic tradition – it also serves as excellent stress relief for military members in South Korea. Research has shown that daily contact with nature has a profound impact on mental and physical health – improving everything from anxiety and depression to diabetes, heart disease and life longevity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has even designated gardening as a moderate intensity exercise that can improve physical health, and research conducted by Michigan State University Extension has shown that gardening can improve mental clarity.

The added benefit of participating in a communal activity shared by more than 200 service members and military family members in South Korea can help participants feel connected during a time of extreme isolation. Many have chimed in by providing photo updates on their plants’ progress or how their children are participating in the gardening project.

“We got [the starter kit] and planted those tiny seeds in the pot! Thank you so much USO,” commented Jenny Kim on the USO Humphreys Facebook page, alongside a photo of her child holding up the pot. “We will see if my daughter’s thumbs will turn green!

Despite the isolation and the frustration of social distancing through the COVID-19 pandemic, the USO Humphreys Gardening Club has turned into a community-wide effort in ensuring that – even when life feels like it is on pause and far from loved ones – our military community stays connected, feels supported and keeps growing.

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