A Home Away from Home

I left home after the tremendous family loss of my mother, and then my dog. I spent the next 5 years just running around partying, not caring about much, but I had my friends and my grandma to back me up. I was fine living on the side of the mountain year after year, all wet in the rain. But the drug scene was bad and my sister pretty much cut me off. I wasn’t welcome at Christmas. I lost a lot of friends to fentanyl. In the last few years in Santa Cruz, over three hundred people have died from the drug and I know at least 250 of those people—people I would see almost every day. I couldn’t get into treatment at Janus because I was angry, yelling, wanting to beat people up.

I was determined to start here at the Homeless Garden Project. I saw it as the only way forward. I came to the West Cliff office every Monday for at least a month in the pouring rain until a spot opened up on the crew.

Every time I would arrive at the farm here, I would realize that the world didn’t matter, nothing else mattered that was outside those gates. Your life out there is not your life in here. Your job is to harvest vegetables, talk to volunteers and community members and ask them, How can I help you?

On Tuesdays, everyone comes together to harvest CSA—Community Supported Agriculture shares. It’s amazing to have the harvest completed! I felt so much pride on the days we would finish the harvest ahead of schedule, all of us working together to make sure the vegetables were clean and good quality. We work hard to make things nice for our community. I’ve found great joy and so many surprises here in all the daily tasks of the farm—from planting seeds in the ground to harvesting some of the best strawberries on the planet (in my eyes).

At the beginning, I didn’t know the layout of the farm, but I loved gaining the knowledge of herbs and flowers and when they go in the ground. So, after only 2 months, I applied for the VAE (Value-added Enterprise) production trainee position. It was a huge challenge, but I was able to rise to it, and to get recognition from our Crop Production Manager, Mike. Now, in this role, I feel a sense of ownership and pride in this place—having the knowledge of the flowers and herbs that we grow here has given me confidence that I didn’t have before. Now I’m able to visit local businesses and our store downtown, see products I helped make, and know that we provide a greater service to the surrounding community.

The work here changes people, you have to experience it for yourself. I used to think, why bother? My social worker, Marissa, who is now my therapist, was right. I was using the wrong kind of energy before. Once you can redirect your energy in the right direction, with the right people assisting you in the right way, you’ll live a better life. I do.

It felt amazing that I was working with community members that saw me as a source of knowledge. It made me realize I wanted to go places in life.

It’s the support of staff, growing and being able to feel like you’re part of something is a really amazing feeling. It’s like you’re part of a family—you’ve gotta find that somewhere and this is the place to find it. They don’t turn people away here, and so many people find peace and serenity here.

We trainees here at the Homeless Garden Project want to welcome you to this day of service in honor of Cesar Chavez for making equal rights for the farmworkers and building the union.

When I think of this day, I remember one year ago, when I was privileged enough to be able to lead a group of 15 volunteers, showing them how to broadfork the onion patch. It felt amazing that I was working with community members that saw me as a source of knowledge. It made me realize I wanted to go places in life.

When I started here last March, I really wasn’t sure where I wanted to go in life. Clearly I did not know what I needed, except for a job—I got that, and much more. This journey I have set out on wasn’t an easy feat. But every single goal, milestone and obstacle—no matter what—I have or will overcome. Being a trainee here has given me one of the biggest opportunities in life.

I have received so much knowledge from Matt, Mike, Doug and all the other trainees, let’s also not forget about Evan, Brenda, Loren, Brian, Darrie and all the rest of the staff here at HGP for helping me out along the way. I also want to thank our supervisor, Hannah, for being one of the most awesome and warm hearted persons that I have had the pleasure of working with and for.

Within 2 months of being here, I felt my life start to go in a new direction. After 4 months of being here, my family allowed me back at their house where I have a very loving and awesome relationship with my sister, who also is an alumnus of the Homeless Garden Project. As time went on, I realized I was able to set goals and accomplish them—I bought a van, then a puppy, and then in February, I moved into my own apartment. I’m doing something with my life by working here at HGP. I’m putting in the work, and I have not once detoured or allowed myself to step backwards.

Now what I want to do is deliver bread or flowers. I want to be actively part of the community and deliver things to people that will put a smile on their faces. You develop a relationship with people here. Everybody is equal here—it’s a transitional job training program. You have to move on, but you don’t forget where you came from, or who you are, and you remember who was there to help you along the way.

I stand here in front of you folks, young and old as living proof that anything is possible, I am part of the best organization I have known. Today I am a better person and I have a better life now. What I chose to do with it, is my own doing.

Thank you!

—Jeremy Barker, HGP Trainee, shared this talk at HGP’s Cesar Chavez Day of Service 2024 at the farm.