This plot of CT land isn't just a place to dig in the dirt. For trauma survivors, it's a way to heal
The twine was waiting to be cut.
Ivette Ruiz stood on a sunny summer day, holding a pair of gardening shears, as family, friends and supporters surrounded her, all clutching the thin thread.
She was opening “Healing by Growing Farms,” a small plot of land at her East Haven house. The space is designed to help trauma survivors heal – by getting outside.
“Whatever you're carrying today, whatever is weighing you down, as you hold on to the string, let it be a symbol – that it's time to let it go,” Ruiz said.
She clipped and the twine fell. The crowd clapped, and after some hugs and tears, Ruiz took just a second to get back to business.
“Who would like to go on a tour?” she asked.
In nature, releasing pain
The space is small. It wraps around her home and each nook is packed with life. Chickens call as Ruiz gestures to everything from bunnies and baby ducks, to a garden full of food.
“This bed is full of berries. Blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries, you name the berry and we probably have it,” Ruiz said with a smile. “Just cut some stuff up from the ground, and eat it, and it could be a nice salad.”
There are even raised garden beds so that people in wheelchairs can work in the soil.
During the pandemic, she transformed the land around her shoreline home into a small farm.
The effort has attracted the attention of Connecticut state officials. In 2022 and 2023, Ruiz has received money from the state Department of Agriculture to develop the space in partnership with local non-profits.
The money has been used to put up privacy fencing – Ruiz acknowledged not all the neighbors have been totally thrilled with the agrarian transformation – and to buy raised garden beds and pave areas to make them wheelchair accessible.
But no matter who shows up to the space, Ruiz said, the goal is the same. Make nature their therapist and let the fresh air and soil give people the space they need to share trauma.
“The beautiful thing about this space is that when people are able to talk about it, they're able to release some of that pain,” Ruiz said. “That is not a clinical therapeutic white-wall setting in a hospital, like I used to do, we're doing it in nature.”
Buried in the dark
Ruiz often has her hands in the dirt.
When you spend so much time in the soil, your mind can wander. And Ruiz said she started asking herself a question: How does that little seed feel when it’s buried?
“Because, sometimes, as human beings, we can be in those very spots,” Ruiz said. “In that darkness. In that place where it feels like we're isolated.”
Ruiz said she was there in 2020. She was getting ready to deploy as a disaster relief responder for Hurricane Isaias, and said she fell and hit her head, suffering a traumatic brain injury.
“That sort of changed my life forever,” Ruiz said. “Because I went from someone who has multiple degrees and years of college – to being a fourth grader. Not being able to speak. Not being able to walk. Not being able to think.”
Memories vanished. Even children’s birthdays were hard to hold onto. The injury consumed her.
“It got to the point that, although I’m a Christian woman, I'm a human being. And I lost hope. And after I lost that hope, I felt like I don't want to live anymore,” Ruiz said.
But she found solace in friends and in prayer. And in the garden right outside her home.
“I just started planting like crazy, knowing that I couldn't eat everything I was planting,” Ruiz said. “But it was just really, really, healing to get my hands in the ground.
“And feel grounded.”
Humans ‘hard-wired’ to connect with nature
There’s science to back up nature’s healing powers.
A study of nearly 20,000 people found that those who spent a total of at least two hours a week outside were more likely to report feelings of well-being than those who didn’t.
Our brains can hold onto trauma well past the immediate threat, said Kirsten McEwan, an associate professor at the University of Derby in the United Kingdom.
“We can replay that for weeks, maybe months, maybe even years, and we keep the threat going for longer,” she said.
McEwan examines how immersion in nature can improve health and well-being. Going outside, she says, can short-circuit some of those negative neurological loops.
“There's quite a lot of research evidence from Japan and South Korea that this can improve cardiovascular health, blood pressure – you get an immune boost from being out in nature, from breathing in the chemicals that the trees put out,” McEwan said.
But to get those benefits, first you have to go outside.
“This is in us. This is part of us,” said Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods,” a 2005 book on “nature-deficit disorder” that helped to spur interest in the benefits of going outside.
“We are hard-wired genetically as human beings to have an affiliation with the rest of nature,” Louv said, citing the work of acclaimed Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson.
Since the publication of Louv’s work, he said hundreds more studies have examined the benefits of re-establishing a connection to nature. “Everything from blood pressure, to stress, to Vitamin D deficiency,” can be helped by going outside, he said.
“When we don't get enough nature, we don't do so well,” Louv said.
A safe space
Back in East Haven, Kasandy Mendiola was visiting Ivette Ruiz’s farm at the opening.
Being outside with other trauma survivors also brings social benefits, said Mendiola, 28, who visits Ruiz’s farm about once a month.
The land doesn’t judge people and welcomes them how they are, Mendiola said.
“For people that come from trauma, I think that one thing that's big is trust, right? And I feel like you have to feel safe,” Mendiola said. “When we are consistently showing up to a place and getting to know the people … I think it allows certain layers of us to shed.”
And like that seed buried in the soil, Ruiz said, people can also begin to grow. Hopefully, they find healing and become something more.
“Within that darkness, and within that yucky space, comes life and comes encouragement and comes love,” she said. “And so as that seed grows, we grow.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, dial or text the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.