ALDA – Chef Anthony Brando has created a tropical paradise in an Alda backyard.
The botanical garden behind his house is a quiet and safe place for veterans and their families.
Part of the Veterans Botanical Garden is meant to look like a Hawaiian paradise. The garden includes a large above-ground swimming pool, in which inflatable pink flamingos floated on Saturday. One of the signs on the fence read “Aloha” and Brando was playing Don Ho music next to the pool.
“I’ve been to Hawaii twice and, man, it’s so relaxing and so peaceful and quiet,” Brando said. “That’s what I’m trying to create there.”
Flowers and sunflowers surround the garden, which is at 601 Saturn St. Brando designed the area to be “just a haven and a safe place to come and get away from the noise of Grand Island.”
Brando, who is widely known as Chef Anthony, is the founder of the nonprofit Business Coalition for Veterans. He wishes he could do more for veterans than the botanical garden. “Our veterans deserve this and more,” he said.
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On Saturday, 30 or 35 people attended the third annual Mervin Gustafson 4th of July Weekend Veterans Picnic.
About half of the attendees were veterans or family members of those who served. At the start of the rally, a few young people frolicked in the swimming pool. In addition to the visit, the guests enjoyed the dishes prepared by Brando, who knows how to put together a meal.
The picnic is named after World War II Navy veteran Mervin Gustafson, Brando’s stepfather. The Grand Island resident died in 2015 at the age of 88. Saturday was the first Gustafson picnic held at Alda Garden, which opened last fall with five or six bonfires.
A Navy veteran, Brando told veterans in the area that they didn’t need his permission to enjoy the garden. If they want to go out and relax, they are free to bring their friends and family.
The grill is ready to use, he tells them. “You can cook, enjoy the facility. If you want me to participate, I can. But I don’t have to.
Among Saturday’s attendees were Holly Jensen and her daughter, Arika, who designed and built three stepping stones for the botanical garden.
Some of the participants were widows of veterans, such as Susanne Shaw from Grand Island. “The chef is one of my very good friends,” she said.
Saturday’s picnic was also to be an open house. Some of Brando’s fellow church members from Destiny Church enjoyed the event.
Daniel Cameron, a veteran, was with Katherine Reed, who was celebrating her birthday.
Other friends in attendance were Jan Ellston and his son, Shane, and Jeff Fickenseher. Jason Bonnes brought along his 12-year-old daughter, Gabby.
Vicki Pflasterer showed up with her miniature horse, Shadow.
Others at the picnic included Victoria Sok, who served in the Navy for 21 years, and Tim Rust, pastor of Destiny Church.
Those visiting the garden are asked not to bring alcohol or fireworks. Some veterans don’t like the deafening sound of the 4th of July.
“For some, it triggers a lot of PTSD — Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait,” Brando said. “People don’t yet realize the depth of what PTSD does to our veterans, but they are learning more and more.”
Rust recently “bought a series for the church about a ministry that works specifically with people with PTSD,” Brando said.
Rust’s brother was in Vietnam. When he returned home, he was startled by the sound of a firecracker. “He had hit the ground,” Rust said.
A discussion about PTSD is a must, Brando said.
Many veterans have low incomes and cannot afford nicer, quieter neighborhoods. This was his thought when building the botanical garden.
Addressing the veterans, he stressed once again: “You don’t need my permission to come here.