When Annapolis resident Miryana Navarro-Monzo lost her husband of 44 years in 2010, she was left feeling empty and devastated.
Then, her longtime friend George Ball—chairman and CEO of Burpee, a Pennsylvania-based home gardening supplies company—approached her about working on a project to benefit the armed forces. Navarro-Monzo threw her energy into The Welcome Garden, a service that distributes free seed packets to returning soldiers.
"Gardening in general is very therapeutic," Navarro-Monzo said. "It's a very healing process."
She conceived the idea for the project during one of many conversations she had with Ball on how the two of them can solve all the world's problems.
"As a third generation horticulturist, I have the chance to extend the resources of my company to these deserving individuals," Ball said in a letter given to Patch. "Miryana's own unique life experiences give her the passion needed to carry The Welcome Home Garden project to success."
Burpee representatives and Navarro-Monzo, a 74-year-old Croatian immigrant and trained linguist, works with organizations such as The American Heart Association and Farmer Veteran Coalition to distribute the seed packets to soldiers.
"Besides the health benefits of the fresh vegetables, it's also a process for the entire family," Navarro-Monzo said. "If someone is deployed and coming back after a long time, it's a good way to reconnect with the family."
The seed packets—which include cucumbers, tomatoes and spinach—are valued at $25 a piece. But Ball estimates that the resulting harvest would be conservatively worth $1,500.
Since its inception in February, The Welcome Home Garden has distributed 50,000 kits across 34 states. Organizers hope to serve 150,000 military families over the next two springs.
Navarro-Monzo said the seeds that were already distributed won't sprout until June but many recipients have already expressed their gratitude.
"Distributors have said that it brings tears of joy to people," she said. "It's really something that touches people."
The project has become so popular that the White House is taking notice.
Navarro-Monzo said first lady Michelle Obama requested 2,000 packets to give to mothers of deployed soldiers in honor of Mother's Day.
"I heard from her people that the project really touched her heart," Navarro-Monzo said.
But, she adds, The Welcome Home Garden has saved her more than anyone else.
"It has affected me more than I ever thought possible," she said.