From The Ground Up

Salvation Army garden helps residents grow confidence

By Jessica Laskey
December 2023

“Everybody talks about having a green thumb, as though that implies it takes something special to make things grow,” Henry Wirz says. “Anyone can have a green thumb. A garden is not that difficult if you do the basics. And once you start, you develop a lot of confidence.”

Wirz uses his green thumbs to beautify the garden and help residents at The Salvation Army’s E. Claire Raley Transitional Living Center. It’s a place where struggling families get back on their feet through structured programs and safe housing.

Wirz joined The Salvation Army advisory board in 2014 after receiving the organization’s Spirit of Caring Award for community outreach as the longtime CEO of SAFE Credit Union.

When the Army’s Major Martin Ross heard Wirz was a gardening whiz, he asked the former board chair if he would consider taking over the center’s garden, which had gone fallow.

It didn’t take much to convince Wirz, who earned his bachelor’s degree in botany at UC Davis. He planned on pursuing a master’s in environmental horticulture before a mentor suggested he look into an MBA.

Throughout his career in finance—including 32 years as the head of one of the country’s top credit unions—Wirz always took time to maintain his home garden in Mariemont. His tomato plants are prolific. He brings large batches of fruit to the emergency shelter.

In 2018, Wirz started in The Salvation Army garden by planting vegetables, including tomatoes, potatoes, squash, green beans, sweet peppers and cucumbers. Residents were encouraged to help plant the seeds, water the plants and share in the bounty come harvest time.

“The garden beautifies the area and teaches residents a valuable skill,” Wirz says. “I am convinced that many of those we serve in The Salvation Army can benefit from having their own garden. In Sacramento, we are blessed with ample water, good soil and great climate. We can grow anything.”

Wirz expanded the garden to include fruit trees and ornamental plants, such as Dortmund roses, mostly from clippings taken from his yard. He reinforced the fencing and became the center’s de facto landscape manager. He prunes, mows, waters and weeds multiple times a week.

“The E. Claire Raley Transitional Living Program has been so fortunate to have Henry contribute his time to the garden,” says program supervisor Samara Brown, who regularly takes bouquets of flowers from the garden to spruce up the office. “Thanks to Henry and his continuous dedication to our program, our landscaping is always so beautiful.”

Wirz does it for more than just beauty. The service gives him an invaluable perspective.

“I love having the opportunity to speak directly to the people we’re serving. It’s important to hear their voices,” Wirz says. “It enhances my understanding of what we’re trying to do, how successful we’re being. You can donate and volunteer all you want, but if you’re not interfacing with the people you’re trying to benefit, you’re not getting the information you need and the encouragement and motivation to continue doing it by seeing you’re actually doing some good.”

He adds, “Here, we have the opportunity to turn people around, make them independent again, give them a better life. If they have a better life, that’s better for all of us.”

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Jessica Laskey can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, X and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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