Donna Arz didn't have a business plan, and she didn't have funding, but she saw an empty lot where a burned down hardware store once stood, and she had a dream. That dream was to bring the community together while giving back to the men and women who served in the U.S. military.
Arz is a healer and life coach who practices Chinese medicine. Twelve years ago she was working with many Vietnam veterans whom she quickly realized needed integrated and mental health services as well as help navigating their lives, so she created the Forgotten Soldier Program which offers a variety of free wellness options for those who have served. She also offers care at no cost to military personnel at Mather Air Force Base and a combat center in Sacramento.
On the way to her office at the Forgotten Soldier, Arz passed the vacant and weed-filled lot in Downtown Auburn and imagined a place where veterans and community members could volunteer side-by-side, dig in the dirt, grow food and flowers, walk a labyrinth and be at peace.
"I just felt guided step by step," Arz said. "The community response was incredible."
For five years the Forgotten Soldier leased the lot for a dollar a month. In her spare time, Arz worked in the space pulling weeds. Eventually, Home Depot donated $30,500 and the United Auburn Indian Community donated another $5,000. A retired veteran offered to be the garden liaison. A fence was built, flower and veggie beds were installed, later came benches, fountains, and shaded arbors. Local artists contributed their skills to beautify the area. Later, the labyrinth was built.
Arz raised money by leasing the garden beds and inviting community members to buy a personalized brick to be placed around one of the fountains. Many of the bricks are dedicated to family members who served in the military, but most any message is welcome, she said. One brick is dedicated to a horse that served in the military, another to a beloved family dog. Arz also plans to install several plaques, each dedicated to veterans and explaining military history, creating an outdoor educational museum. She's invited local artists to create mosaics and paint murals on the surrounding walls as well.
Arz is thrilled to see Auburnites regularly enjoying the garden and walking the labyrinth, she said.
The Forgotten Soldier officially signed the deed to the property this week.
"This will never be a gas station or a convenience store," she said. "It will be open space forever."
When Arz looks back over the works she's done on the garden in the last five years, it feels like a metaphor for her work with veterans.
"Taking care of this space and bringing it back to life was like bringing a vet back to life," she said.
To purchase a brick or lease a garden bed, visit the Forgotten Soldier Program online: