Ridgefield teen plants garden to help firefighters combat PTSD

Angelina Cerulli, of Ridgefield, is creating a garden at Station 2 for her Girl Scout Gold Award project.

Angelina Cerulli, of Ridgefield, is creating a garden at Station 2 for her Girl Scout Gold Award project.

H John Voorhees III / Hearst Connecticut Media

RIDGEFIELD — Angelina Cerulli knows from years of watching her father what firefighters go through and can struggle with.

That’s why she wanted to fnd a project that could help them when tasked with developing a project to earn her Girl Scouts’ gold award. Specifically, she wondered whether she could help those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I really wanted to do something that would help all the firefighters because it’s something that personally matters to me and I see what they go through, how hard it can be on them, and I’d just like to help them out,” Cerulli said.

So the 16-year-old launched a farm-to-firehouse initiative and has been building a small garden at Ridgefield’s Station 2 department to help local firefighters foster healthy habits in combating the disorder.

She believes the physical actions behind gardening can be a useful tool while the fruits of that labor will prompt healthier eating habits.

“Repetition and repetitive action [such as planting, weeding and watering] are very good for helping the part of the brain that is affected by PTSD,” she said.

“They’ll be spending time together and eating healthier, [which is] also something that can better your mental health,” she added.

Cerulli’s father, Tony Cerulli, said PTSD is “a pretty real thing with first responders,” indicating that he’s seen “a lot of people have trouble” with it over the years.

“I’d like to hope that this in some way helps with that,” he added, emphasizing that just being outside in the sunshine can indeed be a “good distraction” from firefighters’ daily routine and having fruits and vegetables within arms’ reach provides better options, which aren’t always available for them in between emergency calls.

Christel Autuori, director of the institute for holistic health studies at Western Connecticut State University, said PTSD is “extremely common” for first responders. In having to be ready to respond to and and all emergencies in an instant, their adrenaline levels are “sky high” and they don’t really have the time to process events before being “thrusted” to another call, she said.

“Traumas unless really addressed will remain in the body and inhibit healing both mentally and physically,” she said. “They’re so burnt out emotionally and a wreck that it’s hard for them to carry out daily activities.”

PTSD in emergency responders often manifest a range of symptoms including anxiety, depression, trouble concentrating and remembering and in some cases, aggressive behaviors, according to Aututori.

But Autuori noted having a garden within reach provides these responders the “perfect place, a safe space” to release their pent-up negativity.

“[Gardening is] very therapeutic because you’re working with the earth, the simplicity of nature’s cycles are healing and stress reliever,” she said. “[It] puts things back in perspective for you.”

Fire Chief Jerry Myers agreed and said the garden’s purposes can produce a “positive psych effect” for the emergency responders.

Angelina Cerulli has worked with a couple of firefighters to build the structure and brought in a garden specialist for training on how to properly grow the plants. So far she has set up the fencing and lay out garden beds. She will put down soil and embed seeds.

Angelina Cerulli said she hopes to have a full garden with tomatoes, eggplants, herbs, peppers, lettuce,and more by September, just in time for a harvest.

“It’s great to see this come alive after years of being a Girl Scout and something this big, helping two sides of the issue — mental health and physical health — and getting to help the firefighters after everything they’ve done for us,” she said.