At this garden, the guy picking beans might be working across from his former probation officer and the judge that sentenced him to jail. Everyone is equal when their hands are in the soil at Seven Oaks community garden
Chris Lepage, 31, picks chard with quiet concentration, separating out the best leaves for sale. Many of his co-workers have been “sentenced” to Seven Oaks as court-ordered community service. Lepage volunteers his time to build work experience.
“I do everything except prune tomatoes,” he said. “That’s one job that requires more patience than I have. I do a lot of the hard work that needs to be done. A lot of the heavy lifting.”
Lepage lives at Cool Aid’s Swift House for people who have struggled with homelessness. Garden work gives him a bit of extra money, fresh vegetables and a new perspective – there is an entire world outside Victoria’s downtown core.
“You can’t be mad when you go home from here. I’m always in a good mood out here, being outside. It’s not just the work, it’s the surroundings,” he said, amid farm fields and oak trees in Saanich’s Blenkinsop Valley.
The 7,600 square foot garden exploding with vegetables is helping break the cycle of petty crime, arrests, court hearings and jail for people living with mental illness and drug addictions. Fresh air and nature beats lockup at Wilkinson Road any day of the week.
Kevin, 44, spends the rainy morning washing carrots, beans and chard in preparation for packaging. He’s found his green thumb here since trading habitual drug use for organic gardening.
“This gets me out of the inner city core. It’s fulfilling. I like doing something with my hands and have a product come out of it. Especially strawberries,” he said, smiling. “I got into the drug scene and it helps keep me out of the drug scene.”
The community garden as a therapy tool is in its first full year of food production at Seven Oaks, a mental health facility run by the Vancouver Island Health Authority.
Clients, usually about 10 per session, are bused in from downtown, many of them completing community service handed down through the Victoria Integrated Court. At the garden, they’re under the watch of staff from the Assertive Community Treatment and Victoria Integrated Community Outreach Team (ACT-VICOT), teams of social workers, health professionals, police and probation officers.
The Victoria Integrated Court and the ACT-VICOT teams work hand in glove to focus on repeat offenders who are usually drug-addicted, mentally ill and homeless or living in shelters.
Provincial court Judge Ernie Quantz and Sharon Bristow, retired probation officer, haul wheelbarrows of soil, pick veggies and prune leaves alongside clients completing community service. Both were instrumental in establishing the Victoria Integrated Court after witnessing the lineup of mentally ill people rotating through the justice system.
They also realized that part of the solution was removing offenders from the downtown core and into constructive, therapeutic activities, like a garden.
Quantz and garden co-ordinator David Stott approached Seven Oaks, which had an existing plot, and found support through the John Howard Society and the Blenkinsop Valley Community Association, to back its significant expansion.
Two years later the garden produces enough veggies each week to sell to staff at Seven Oaks and the Ministry of Justice in the Sussex Building downtown.
Clients receive a daily stipend, free veggies, and split the sales revenue based on hours spent at the garden over the growing season.
“When you are in a situation of being mentally disordered or drug addicted and you live on the street, your sense of community is very narrow. Their community is the 900-block of Pandora,” Quantz said. “This helps develop a sense of a broader community, and where if you work hard, you can make money.
“You have street-involved people selling flowers and vegetables to the deputy attorney general. In part, it gives participants a sense that they are part of the community too, that we aren’t in separate worlds.”
The key to breaking the cycle of crime and addiction, and to secure the success of projects like the Seven Oaks garden, are the dedicated ACT-VICOT teams, the judge said.
“Drug addicted and mentally disordered tend to cycle through the courts, through Eric Martin (hospital), through the emergency room. The key to ACT-VICOT is day-to-day supervision and guidance, and sometimes incarceration,” he said.
“I’m such a fan of (ACT-VICOT). They are the best initiative for the justice system I’ve seen in my career. It’s an amazing resource for the justice system and it’s why I and my wife volunteer here and support them now.”
Quantz works with people he’s sent to jail. Meeting at the garden is less awkward then one might imagine. “The first time we meet again is always very pleasant and respectful both ways. We joke around about it. I learn a lot working in the garden with them. It makes me a better judge.”
Volunteers and garden co-ordinators say they’ve seen the positive change in the health and attitude of clients, although Stott notes it is a bumpy ride. A few a shown up under the influence or fell under the grip of their mental illness, but ACT-VICOT staff are always on hand.
“Folks have their good days and bad days,” Stott said. “But this is pioneering as a combination of therapeutic gardening and income generation.”
“David asked the participants why they keep coming back. One said it’s helping him recovery from a head injury, it helps him with his memory. We were all surprised to hear that,” remarked Jackie Robson, the assistant garden co-ordinator.
Bristow, a retired probation officer and a volunteer since the garden broke sod, said the program is still in early days in terms of seeing if it will help break the cycles of addiction and crime for its clients.
Anecdotally, the therapeutic successes are obvious and are ready to be adopted by other organizations. Community Living B.C., and Manchester House for offenders on parole, plan to send clients to the Seven Oaks garden.
“There are still questions if it will work, but this year we’ve had such an impressive group. The clients all want to be here,” Bristow said.
“I know some of them from court. To see them show up clean and sober, that is the influence. (For them) to show up and make a commitment twice a week every week for months – that has an impact,” she said. “It’s little steps for sure.”
To donate to the Seven Oaks community garden or to volunteer, contact the John Howard Society at 250-386-3428 or johnhoward.victoria.bc.ca.