“Nothing enlightens the soul like putting one’s hands into fertile earth; realizing that cupped in one’s hands, rolling in between one’s fingers is a tiny universe constantly moving before, during and after our time.” — U-Knot-Me
….a vivid sentiment not expected from the pen of a person who is homeless. Yet it was and it brought tears…. just one of the many surprises awaiting us at the Homeless Garden Project of Santa Cruz, California.
The first stop on our six week tour recording the stories of those making a difference in the sustainability of our food system, this visit was entrancing with threads of ecological thought and feeling, wrapped around a unique farm and its social and cultural outreach.
“In the soil of our urban farm and garden, people find the tools they need to build a home in the world.”
– H.G.P. Mission Statement
With this premise, the project reaches out to the homeless with multiple programs. Sharing tea with Executive Director Darrie Ganzhorn in the midst of a four-acre organic vegetable, flower and herb garden, on a crisp, shoreside evening, we could feel the connectivity….connectivity to a community that society has frequently deemed unworthy and has generally preferred to ignore.
The H.G.P was begun in 1990 as a way to draw the homeless out of the ugliness that limited change. Interaction with the earth, personal relationships and experiencing the magic of a garden’s growth provides them tools that can redirect their lives. Darrie has been with the program since 1991 and over 1200 volunteers have participated, contributing 13,555 hours to date. Keenly aware that the complexity of homelessness is a humanitarian and social services issue, Darrie, the paid staff and the cadre of volunteers provide help by providing those in need with the means to help themselves. We knew that Darrie spoke for all in saying that the experience enriches the lives of everyone involved.
“The tool that we use is the therapeutic character of the garden.”
– Don Lessard, employee
A Connecticut transplant, Don found the H.G.P. searching for a twelve-month growing climate with the need to maintain a lifelong passion for gardening. Volunteering for two years, he now has one of the coveted paid positions overseeing the Farm Stand operation. Seeing the face of change in many of the homeless in the program, he is untiring in his dedication to teaching them to build relationships, to connect to the community and to learn farming techniques. He gifts others the ability to cultivate self-sufficiency.
Knowing the struggles that urban farm programs share, we had to know what makes this unique effort work. Not surprisingly, it takes multiple creative intiatives to stay viable. Two different CSAs bring in revenue while providing fresh, locally grown food to the community, the farm stand supports a “pick your own produce” program for non-CSA members, the Women’s Organic Flower Enterprise makes products from flowers, grasses and herbs to sell at the Holiday Store, a retail store sells products such as jam, potpourri and organic flowers and the SUSTAIN dinner fundraising program features volunteer chefs cooking meals using local organic foods, served in the enchanting garden setting. Private donations and contributions from Seed Matters funded by Clif Bar and the New Leaf Community Market complete the financial picture.
All of these efforts support the core job training and transitional employment program. For up to a two year commitment,15 trainees earn $8/hr for a 20 hour, four day work week, learning and practicing the arts of four-season gardening. Trainees grow and sell vegetables and flowers, gaining experience in working with professional landscapers, business owners and the general public…..building synergy between what has been erroneously seen as two distinct communities.
Only funding limits the size of this fine program. To address the larger need and a keen interest from the local homeless community, Darrie and team have developed the Century Certificate Program. For 100 hours of volunteer work at the farm and participation in four job training lectures, participants earn a certificate of completion. Ed Lenander, one of the homeless volunteers in this program, tells us that the positive experience of participation, structure, productivity, activity, a nutritious lunch and therapeutic horticulture has opened doors for him. This program can be a prelude to the full job training program.
“The purpose of our programs and activities is to foster connections among all the members of our community”
– Darrie Ganzhorn
The Homeless Garden Project fosters a profound exchange. Their inclusive commitment includes the Laurel Street Program and the Bay School Program where developmentally challenged volunteers and high school age autistic children work to the level of which they are capable and participate in the life of the farm. Other support comes from university students in various degree programs, individuals working off traffic tickets through community service and interested individuals who want to get their hands in the soil.
While having a homeless focus, this profound urban farm was created to benefit all the citizens of Santa Cruz. A blueprint for similar developmental models in our community?….in your community?….we asked Darrie and she supplied us with a succinct outline for creating a similar homegrown program.My sister and singer Alisa Fineman wrote this song… its theme so aligned…”A Safe Place To Go.”
To a safe place to go,
By Julie Ann Fineman
Co-authored with Lee Glenn