Viewing art and a labyrinth at the Peace Garden at Woodwynn Farms, a therapeutic farm for the homeless on the Saanich Penisula of Vancouver Island, British Columbia
The Saanich Peninsula north of Victoria on Vancouver Island is beautiful. Bordered by the Saanich Inlet and the Strait of Georgia, the area is one of rolling hills and quiet countryside. In Central Saanich, near the pretty village of Brentwood Bay, on an historical farm property now home to the homeless, I discovered a peace garden created by local artists. The garden contained works of art and a labyrinth amid sage and lavender plants, blueberry bushes, apple trees and kiwi trees. It would be easy to drive by this farm without realizing what it was or what it contained. Thankfully my sister, who lived in the area, knew about it and thought I would enjoy seeing it. She was right.
Woodwynn Farms, the site of the garden, has a significant history. It is part of the Douglas Treaty Lands, purchased from the First Nations by James Douglas in the mid-1800s. In 1854 Andrew McPhail built a cabin on what is now Woodwynn Farms. Other Europeans settled in the area and a thriving agricultural community developed. McPhail sold off his property within twenty years. Bay Farm, as it was known, was later bought by the Woodward family of Woodward’s Department Store fame and remained in the Woodward family until 1988.
The 193-acre farm was purchased in 2009 by the Creating Homefulness Society to be run as a therapeutic farm for the homeless, modelled after a successful program in San Patrignano, Italy. Founder and Executive Director Richard LeBlanc had previously founded the Youth Employment Program to work with young people on the streets of Victoria, British Columbia.
The Woodwynn Farms program is described as “a hand up, not a hand out.” The participants often have mental health issues or drug or alcohol addiction. The “hands-in-the-dirt” therapy is based on responsibility, dignity, accomplishment, accountability and peer-to-peer support. Participants learn work skills, community and self-respect. Basic needs are met. Drugs, alcohol and violence are not allowed. A healthy distance from downtown, structure and routine, mindfulness exercises, healthy diet, and work with meaning and purpose are key components of the program.
Participants begin the day at 5:45 am with yoga. They work six days a week assisting with crop and livestock production. They have evenings to themselves, but after a full day most are in bed between 8:30 and 9:00 pm. Sundays are for cleaning personal spaces, doing laundry, and family visitations.
Controversy has surrounded the project. Some residents in the pricey neighbourhood protested, claiming the land was not appropriate for commercial, industrial and office use, and expressing a desire for it to be preserved as farmland. There have been battles with municipal authorities over zoning regulations and refusals to grant expansion permits. Supporters of the Farm attribute the protests to “Not in My Backyard” syndrome.
Participants are currently housed in donated travel trailers. Woodwynn Farms’ vision is to ultimately house up to 96 people in permanent resident buildings, but current zoning restrictions prohibit that. Currently there are generally six to eight residents.
Woodwynn Farms is transitioning from the production of hay for off-farm sales to labour-intensive organic production of crops and high-value animal products for on-farm consumption and direct sales. Community groups volunteer and hold work parties to help. The peace garden, unveiled in May 2015, was also a volunteer effort.
The Peace Garden was created by artist Deryk Houston, assisted by his son Samuel Houston and his wife, glass artist Elizabeth Wellburn. The .7 acre encompasses art work amid the plants and contains an 80-foot, 7-circuit labyrinth at its centre. The intent was to create a sanctuary of peace. It took them two years to build the garden. Houston donated $100,000 worth of sculptures. Elizabeth Wellburn contributed art works. There is a $25,000 donated statue by David Kocka.
The Woodwynn Peace Garden – artist’s page provides information about the creation of the garden and current progress. It includes photographs of progress over time. The artists continue work on the garden, visiting every week to do maintenance work.
The vision for Woodwynn Farms includes a retail market, gallery and café. The day I visited, a couple of men were working on completing the interior of the market barn. Finished and partially finished product display cases were situated around the front area, some with products on them (e.g. preserves). At the back of the building was a welcoming sitting area and café. (Update May 2017: The indoor farm market is now open year round Tuesdays to Saturdays from 10 am to 4 pm.)
According to a 2013 study by the Wellesley Institute, 30,000 Canadians are homeless on any given night. The study also stated that our focus needs to shift from crisis management (e.g. emergency shelters, soup kitchens) to permanent solutions. Emergency shelters will continue to be needed, but we also need to focus on a range of housing options and strategies to move people out of homelessness.
With a need for a variety of different type of programs and approaches to address homelessness on a more permanent basis, it would be nice to see Woodwynn Farms and the community of Saanich reach an agreement where they work together to implement more of the Woodwynn Farms vision and give the therapeutic program a chance to help more people. In the meantime, Woodwynn Farms continues to run its programs and work toward its vision.
Richard LeBlanc told me they prefer program participants to stay on the farm for twelve months before reintegration, but they allow for longer stays on an as-needed basis. Reintegration is a phased process and the Farm works with participants past the twelve month mark. Beyond that, they stay in touch on a more informal basis (Facebook, family, or a return for a celebratory dinner). He said they don’t have any hard statistics on success rates, but is pretty certain it is well beyond a 35% success rate at the moment. He bases success on sobriety and self-reliance after periods of 1, 3, and 5 years after moving on from the program. The estimated current success rate is a promising number given that many social service programs have only a 5% success rate. Depending of which survey you read and what time period is covered, success rates for 12-step programs range from 5 to 33%.
Woodwynn Farms holds public events from time to time. (My sister attended a Christmas craft fair.) The Peace Garden is open to the public Tuesday to Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm. Admission is free. Donations to Woodwynn Farms are always welcome. Farm tours and information sessions are held Saturdays between 1 and 3 pm.