Our Volunteers Share Their Stories

Briggs, Lienallie and Becca at the farm

“Service is not a hierarchy but a reciprocity in which the distinctions between teacher and pupil, giver and receiver, helper and helped constantly dissolve.” –Scott London

In honor of Make a Difference Week, we took time to acknowledge our extraordinary community of volunteers, and to reflect on how volunteering with HGP has made a difference in people’s lives. 

Becca McKnight is an invaluable member of the HGP community, volunteering at the farm on Fridays, serving food at Sustain Suppers, and connecting with trainees, volunteers, and staff with humility, care and generosity.

We asked Becca to reflect on what her volunteer involvement means to her:
“The Homeless Garden Project is an incredible organization which provides a safe space for people to be held, heard, and given the chance that they deserve. I am enlightened weekly by working on the farm with the crew, where we get to grow and share beautiful food and establish profound connections with both the land and one another.

HGP envisions a thriving and inclusive community, and that vision is surely enacted upon. It’s a place where I can be myself, dig in the most magical dirt, and reflect upon systemic injustices while doing what I can to make a difference.

Extending my hand to such a caring and hopeful community has enriched my life in a multitude of ways, but mostly by making me a better person. 

I will never be able to give back even a portion of what this organization has given to me. The Project provides exceptional support, care, and love to those who might need it, and I’m so lucky be one of the many beneficiaries.”– Becca McKnight

Mike Arenson (far left) in the kitchen

Mike Arenson has volunteered for over 3 years, preparing lunch at the farm twice a week for trainees, volunteers and staff. Mike brings to HGP an inspiring commitment, a passion for food and cooking, and a deep care for community.

“When I retired from being Solar Mike, one of my main goals was to be involved in helping people who are homeless in Santa Cruz.

I love to cook and I called the Homeless Garden to see if I could help in their kitchen. They asked if I could start the next day! That was more than three years ago. Since then, I have been volunteering twice a week as a cook, making lunch for the trainees, staff and volunteers at the farm.

I see first-hand how the Homeless Garden Project transforms people’s lives, from the exhausting struggle they face living on the street to being in a place filled with love, purpose, and hope. I am so impressed with the trainees who participate in the program — their communication, the responsibilities they take on, their support for one another and the mission of the project. 

I am part of the community, and I receive so much appreciation from many people involved. I love being part of a solution to help people in need.” – Mike Arenson

Norbert in the field

Norbert Lazar volunteers at the farm one day each week throughout the entire year. He brings his years of experience with gardening to the farm, along with an openness to connect with everyone he meets and works alongside, and a commitment to completing the task at hand with diligence and joy.

“When I first volunteered at HGP I was hoping to get my hands dirty, get some exercise and possibly share my gardening experience with folks.

I didn’t realize how much I would learn, about gardening and about people. HGP is a special place with special energy. The shared food, stories and camaraderie among such a diverse group is truly inspiring.” – Norbert Lazar

Suzanne at the Human Race

Suzanne Heinze has volunteered for over 4 years, working on administrative and financial projects in the office as well as helping out at events on the farm. Suzanne brings dependability, thoroughness, and commitment to our mission.

“Without Suzanne, so much in our office wouldn’t get done. She helps me immensely and provides great support to both our Executive Director, Darrie Ganzhorn, and our Finance Manager, Mary Reyes. She is an essential member of HGP and I am grateful to have her support” – Kim Parisi, HGP Administrative Assistant

The meaningful participation of community members through our volunteer program strengthens the sense of community and belonging for both housed and unhoused people who are impacted by our work.

Our volunteer program creates opportunities every day for people to break down social barriers and address stigmas around homelessness. The relationships of care and trust that evolve over time help to address the experience of isolation and disconnection that is often at the core of an individual’s experience of homelessness.

Cultivating Community, our community education and volunteer program, generates connection and belonging for our trainees and community members, which stands in stark contrast to  recent research from Crisis.org on the harmful effects of isolation and loneliness: “We know that homelessness is a devastating experience and how hard it is to overcome. Yet what this new research shows is also just how much of an isolating and lonely experience it is.

Homelessness means not only losing a roof over your head but also losing regular contact with those that matter to you. Being homeless already means being at heightened risk of mental and physical health problems but we increasingly know just how bad being lonely is for a person’s well-being….

When someone has a greater sense of belonging, fostered by feeling needed, valued, and significant, they achieve better social and psychological functioning. ” (Read the research here.)

While homelessness has multiple causes, we believe that it cannot be addressed without building a strong community of belonging, and so we deeply value our community of volunteers, who add richness and diversity to our daily experience and expand our network of connections.

To learn more about Cultivating Community, HGP’s Community Education and Volunteer Program, please contact KerenR@homelessgardenproject.org