Belonging to Something Bigger Than Myself

If you would have told me just a few short months ago that I will be asked to speak for the city of Santa Cruz, honestly I would’ve told you that you were crazy. No one tells you life is easy. But I believe it is as hard as you make it, and I made my life extremely hard for a very long time. However, my life didn’t start that way and it doesn’t have to end that way either.

My name is Rachel Sommers. I am 27 years old and I am a trainee at the Homeless Garden Project. I was born into a loving family in St. Louis Missouri. My sister Erica was born two minutes later, and we both went on to what seem to me as a “normal” life. My parents provided for my sister and me, we went on family vacations, made family traditions, and they gave us love, support and stability. 

With all these things, I still never felt like an individual. For 18 years I lived in the same house, went to the same school, had the same “dysfunctional” family that made me think that chaos was normal. My mom was an alcoholic from the time I was born until I was about 12 or 13. She has been sober ever since. She was and continues to be, one of the greatest teachers, leaders and role models for me throughout my journey. Watching my mom get to see the promises that sobriety brings, had a huge positive impact in our relationship at the time when I needed my mom the most.

Unfortunately, I did not learn from my mom’s mistakes. I just heard stories as ideas for my own bad choices. My sister and I were always expected to have good grades, be home for dinner at 7:00 PM every night, and follow strict rules. However, as I grew older, every drop of freedom I got, the more trouble I would find myself in. Drugs and alcohol came into my life at a young age. I was arrested three times before graduating high school. From shoplifting to distribution of narcotics. My sister became my partner in crime and best friend right before we were to be separated by hundreds of miles for the next 8 years.

After all my trouble in high school and longing for independence, I moved to San Diego for school all by myself and my sister went to UCSC. No one knew that I was a twin. I could finally be my own person. This started my journey of changing my geography to change my problems. For a long part of my life I blamed my problems on anyone else but myself. I would find any excuse to blame them on anyone or anything else. 

Two years in San Diego and then five years back in my hometown of St. Louis Missouri sent me to very high and very low places. Some of the best memories of my life was in that time. I met many amazing people, graduated from college, started a job and became a dog mom for the next 10 years. This time in my life also led to many broken hearts, stress, abusive relationships, unhealthy jobs, and I found myself drinking and doing drugs on a daily basis. With all those things I had gained, my choices caused me to lose everything. Due to my addiction, I lost every single job I ever had, countless relationships, material items, my dignity, and most of all, my self-respect.

So I decided to run from my problems once again. January 2020 I made the decision to move to Orange County by myself, to try to escape some of the wreckage I caused. I wanted a “fresh start.”

I just wanted my problems to disappear. However, I only brought them with me. A dozen more jobs lost, moving from place to place and burning every bridge along the way. This run took me to a new low. I found myself homeless for the first time, facing a whole new trauma I knew nothing about. I crossed lines I never thought I would. I became a different person, using any drugs I could get my hands on to forget about where I was. My family didn’t know if I was alive or dead.

Rachel in HGPs farm stand

Out of (what I thought was) one last ounce of desperation, I finally contacted my sister in Santa Cruz and asked if I could come stay with her to get back on my feet. Santa Cruz has always been such a special place to me, and visiting my sister every year, this town quickly became my home away from home. Having the opportunity to live here was the best and worst thing that happened to me. I quickly landed back on the streets, living in a tent, and doing any drugs I can get my hands on to forget about where I was again. I got involved in a very abusive and manipulative relationship living on the streets. I just wanted to survive. 

This round landed me in the hospital for three days with pancreatitis, potassium deficiency, and excruciating withdrawals. When I heard my dad tell me “I don’t want to bury you,” as I lay helpless in Dominican Hospital, I decided I had finally had enough. The nurse handed me a list of resources in the area and I saw the Homeless Garden Project at the top.

I started an inpatient drug and alcohol treatment program when I got out of the hospital. They made all the clients get jobs, and the Homeless Garden Project instantly popped into my mind. Walking up to the farm for the first time is something I will never forget. There’s beautiful community of people all from different backgrounds, working together for a common goal. 

My whole life, I always struggled to find my sense of self or happiness. I always tried searching for ways to fit, in order to be looked at as an individual. I finally stopped looking for happiness in different locations, relationships, jobs, schools, etc.…The sense of happiness I get from being a part of the Homeless Garden Project has changed my life in more ways than I can ever explain. This was something I had never done before so I was nervous. 

I do believe the quote, “your vibe attracts your tribe.” In such a short time, I have learned every flower on the farm (and have picked out all my favorites). I have learned to prep beds, plant and harvest crops, make trellises, identify pests and so many more farm tasks. 

But most importantly, I have seen a project go from a seed to part of the salad in our lunch. I have learned to persevere in times of challenges instead of giving up. I’ve met some of the strongest people I’ve ever met in my life, who inspire me to be the best version of myself every day. I have dedicated myself to community I can now call my “farmily” (as Elise would say). 

Since starting as a trainee at the Homeless Garden Project, I have obtained two other jobs that I love. My employers can depend on me to show up on time and perform to the best of my abilities. I used to wake up every day dreading what the day will bring. 

I struggle with depression and anxiety and so much fear. I didn’t believe I was worthy of being happy, joyous and free. Now, every morning I wake up excited to go to the farm and be a part of something bigger than myself. I am learning time management, dependability, teamwork and leadership skills at HGP that I can apply to any job I get after I graduate.

I was always running to escape my problems. Now I have finally found a place to plant my roots and to see the “finished product” a year from now, much like a beautiful dahlia that starts as a seed, evolves as it grows, faces challenges, and becomes a beautiful flower by the end.

The Homeless Garden Project has changed my life in more ways than I could’ve dreamed of. I am so excited to see what this year brings for me and the impact I can make at the Homeless Garden Project.

–Rachel Sommers, August 2021