Every Tuesday and Thursday since May, Dennis Ohalloran has gotten his hands dirty, tending to a veggie patch in the Blenkinsop Valley.
When his mental health worker suggested gardening, he was skeptical, despite its proven benefits for those with mental illness.
“I thought she was crazy,” said Ohalloran outside his 30-square-metre plot of cucumbers, radishes, beans, peas,and lettuce. “I thought it was pretty weird, then I came and did it and now I love growing vegetables.”
Ohalloran is one of nine Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) clients – people facing mental health and/or addictions issues and who are homeless or at risk of homelessness – who, along with five clients of Seven Oaks Tertiary Mental Health Facility, have grown vegetables at Blenkinsop Road farm as a part of the Feeding Ourselves and Others project over the summer.
The project was funded through an initial $50,000 provided by the United Way, the Victoria Parks and Recreation Foundation, the Evergreen Foundation, VanCity Credit Union and the Canada Post Foundation for Mental Health, along with organizational support from the Vancouver Island Health Authority, the Victoria Integrated Court and the John Howard Society.
"Provincial psychiatric hospitals were well known for having farming and animal husbandry and an opportunity to grow their own food and to create opportunities for their patients and their staff in somewhat of a therapeutic milieu, a work therapy milieu if you will. We’re proud to be able to continue that tradition,” said Dr. Ian Musgrave, clinical director of Tertiary and ACT Services for the Vancouver Island Health Authority.
“Farming and getting your hands in the soil continues to be a real legacy of horticultural therapy. It’s wonderful to see Seven Oaks getting into that.”
Gardeners range in age from their 20s to their 60s and they are all overcoming obstacles most of us cannot even begin to imagine, said project co-ordinator David Stott.
“So many contributions have been made,” said Stott, noting the donation of gardening tools and equipment. “Perhaps most importantly time was contributed as well as advice, and especially the time of the participants.”
Provincial Court judge Ernie Quantz championed the idea for the project through his involvement with the Victoria Integrated Court.
“This is very much a community initiative,” Stott said. “It’s not just a Seven Oaks initiative. It’s not just a John Howard initiative. It’s not just an Integrated Court initiative. It’s everyone’s initiative and that’s why I feel really fortunate to be a part of this.”
Ohalloran, who lives downtown, plans to continue his visits to the valley next year – an endeavour that affords him therapeutic afternoons in rural Saanich and fresh salads at home, while providing additional fresh food to the Mustard Seed Food Bank and Our Place.