In a far corner of the potting area for the nursery at Green Oak Ranch in Vista sits dozens of pots with plants that, frankly, seem dead. Some show signs of life, but they certainly aren’t healthy – something you wouldn’t want to buy from the new commercial nursery there that specializes in native grown plants.
“The pots are known as the ‘Rehab Unit,'” said Pat Regan, naturalist at the 147-acre camp owned by the Los Angeles Union Rescue Mission. “We named it that because the plants are like many of the residents here – these are people who others think of as dead, but we’re giving them a chance. Some need to be pruned back and they’ll sprout up again with God’s special care.
“Some are dormant and others are nearly dead – but you’d be surprised at how many come back to life.”
“People rehab is a tough business,” he noted, “because drug and alcohol abuse has become such a stronghold in their lives. Many people just can’t make it, but it’s so great to see the Lord’s handiwork at restoring lives. Like the plants in the pots, first there is root growth and then you see the buds of growth – and later they just blossom.”
Green Oak Ranch has been in operation since 1951, but only in the last couple of years has it begun moving in the direction of becoming a self-sufficient ministry. The Los Angeles Rescue Mission’s rehab operation had been such a financial drain that several years ago the property off Sycamore Avenue was nearly sold.
“We want to show our residents and our neighbors that we can make it without having to ask for handouts,” Regan said. “We want to convince them that we’re a good idea. I think we have, because we’re ministry and we’re cost effective. Our rehab program – with the Lord doing the work – really works. And we have four revenue producers now: the camp and retreats, food services, the nursery and the thrift store.”
Regan, who has been on staff at Green Oak since 1985, noted that another big change recently has been the emphasis of “native grown” men and women in the rehab program.
“This used to be a men’s facility only, with mostly men from Los Angeles, but part of our director’s (Carl Fielstra) vision was to open this up for men, women and families from this area. He sees Green Oak Ranch as a public resource for the mending of lives of people and families.
“There are currently 45 men and 25 women in the program – which is 6 months or longer – and more than 90% of the people are from San Diego County, many from North County.”
Regan explained how the men are still housed in the old ranch house, but in recent years the facilities for women have been added by converting the director’s home and that families are assigned to the various other cabins spread among the acreage.
The ministry still has children’s camps in the summer and on weekends, as well as adult retreats, but a big difference is that the outside programs are staffed by the groups visiting the scenic ranch. Groups, large and small, that regularly use the facility are boys and girls clubs, church groups, other ministries and even the U.S. Navy.
Regan is one of four remaining staff members. The others are director Carl Fielstra, Jim Huber for camps and retreats, and Colin Schatz for food services. Frank Smith is the volunteer chaplain. Years ago, there were 20 year-round people on staff and up to 90 during the summer.
“This place is so picturesque,” said Regan. “Homes and the industrial park are getting closer and closer to us, but we’re still so isolated. I love it here, especially seeing how God changes lives.”
Regan, who has been trained as an environmental educator, helped establish a nature center on the property a decade ago. When he supervised the landscaping of the project, he noted the abundance of native plants on the property.
He also saw how excited the people in rehab were at seeing something grow, creating with their hands and learning a new skill.
“Starting a commercial nursery was a natural thing to do. When San Diego County’s last two nurseries that specialized in California native plants closed, the two owners donated much of their inventory to us, including tables and pots. The public is just finding out about us, but we have a lot of commercial accounts who really like our plants.”
Regan said the nursery is open Monday-Friday, 9-4, and will soon be open Saturdays. It stocks nearly 200 native species and 80 non-native but compatible species.
“What’s really exciting is to see the spiritual growth. And there are so many examples in God’s Word. Each of us is a plot of land and as seeds drop, we need to get the weed seeds out and let the seed of Christ take root. We all need to tend to our garden.”
Regan works with 7-12 people in both the nursery (women) and nature center (men) crews. He also helps in the Bible studies and other duties.
“We have a really strong team here and God accomplishes a lot through us,” he said.
The adults in the program all attend Bible studies, 12-step meetings and are given personal attention.
“Recovery is God’s business,” Regan noted. “We just want to show them hope and conviction that ‘I can live a normal life.’
“The skills they learn in the nursery or landscaping crews has meant a real job skill, too. It’s exciting to see our graduates now getting jobs – with the city of San Marcos, MiraCosta College, and others.”
One of the distinctions Regan teaches is the difference between soil and dirt. The men and women in the program are learning to appreciate the soil. And that they aren’t dirt.