Growing Community: Engaging Youth through Gardening. An Ontario 150 Grant Summary

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St. John’s Meadow Cemetery Garden, Ottawa

The 2017 Ontario150 Youth Partnership Program was an opportunity for Ontario youth to participate in their communities in ways that would reflect their creativity, cultural expression, diversity, environmental stewardship, entrepreneurship, and civic engagement.

Since faith communities typically have usable space for gardens of all types, at Faith & the Common Good, we focused the funding we received through this program on engaging youth affiliated with faith groups in garden projects as a way to uplift and empower community.

Our project, Growing Community: Engaging Diverse Youth to Strengthen Ontario’s Tapestry of Urban Gardens, took place in three regions – Ottawa, Halton, and Toronto. We collaborated with a cross-section of stakeholders to increase the leadership of young people in planting and maintaining eight urban gardens across the three areas, at the same time promoting environmental stewardship for the entire community.

“We were excited about this project because of the potential gardens have to not only engage youth through developing practical gardening skills, but to also facilitate positive interaction and inclusion among young people of diverse backgrounds and faiths,” says project coordinator, Lisa Seiler. “We are grateful to the Province of Ontario and Ontario150 for providing us with the opportunity to cultivate relationships and celebrate mutual understanding in this 150th anniversary year for Ontario and Canada.”

Toronto

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Manor Rd United, Toronto

In Toronto, a Jewish congregation, a Christian church, and a Muslim mosque hosted pollinator- attracting gardens. Toronto animator, Donna Lang, was responsible for recruiting the faith communities and facilitating the overall planning of the gardens. She used a “pass the wand” approach, in which she identified a faith leader or youth leader at each of the three garden venues and then asked them to find two youth to be in charge of the gardening and video.  The youth, in turn, recruited others to help with the planting.  

“Putting Down Roots” was the theme of the youth planting at Shaarei Shomayim Congregation.  “The youth were excited about having a native garden that is planted and managed by them, putting their own ‘roots’ into the garden and fostering sustainability,” reports Donna. The teens took total charge of planting the garden and, together, they planted over 100 plants in just 3 hours.    

The theme of honouring Indigenous people ran throughout these native plant garden projects.  At the “First Peoples, First Plants” plaque presentation at Manor Road United Church, Donna said, “First Peoples had great knowledge concerning the importance of native species and their role as good stewards of the land in supporting pollinator populations long before the settlers arrived.” Reverend Debra Schneider shared, “The idea of a native garden on our property appeals strongly to our appreciation of and commitment to the natural world; and the interfaith aspect of the grant reflects both our desire to connect with our broader community, and our commitment to interfaith and intercultural harmony and respect.”  Allison Marcaccini, Child and Youth Ministry Coordinator, recruited over fifty youth and adults from the congregation and surrounding community to participate in the planting.

At the International Muslim Organization (IMO), two youth leaders were selected for planting day.  The youth leaders recruited the youth, organized the plants, showed youth where to plant, and captured the video footage for this event.  At their prayer service celebrating the garden, Omar Farouk commented, “It is fitting that we have representation from three different religions here today…Christian, Jewish, and Muslim…all of these originate from the Father Abraham. We have many complementary stories and passages in our respective religious texts, due to our common roots.”

The Toronto video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0FpboeuVaZE best illustrates the enthusiasm of the Toronto plantings.  Youth comments received on our survey about their favourite part of the experience included, “developing my garden abilities,” ”planting with friends,”  “digging a hole,” “helping the earth,” and “having fun together.”

Halton

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Tarbiyah Islamic Elementary School, Halton

In Halton, Tarbiyah Islamic Elementary School and Christ the King Catholic Secondary School created habitat with a strong focus on native plants species. “The idea was to encourage students at both these schools in acknowledging and appreciating the territorial land that we built this garden on,” says Chantelle Misheal, Halton Project Animator.

Describing the engagement model she used to draw in youth for the two garden sites, Chantelle points out that it was based on creating opportunities for empowerment and ownership. Both projects started out by establishing a relationship with the students and teachers, to better define the animator’s role during the project. “By creating these relationships, the teachers held more confidence in the success of the project given our support, and the students were able to connect and relate to someone outside of their circle of teachers, advisors, etc.” says Chantelle. “Once the relationship was established, I was able to effectively communicate with them the importance of collective action, the urgency of climate change and how it affects them, and of course, how we could start with a garden.”

The students gained knowledge through gardening workshops and discussions. From this, the really keen and interested ones were supported in applying particular skills and interests. At Christ the King, “they have art, woodworking, and culinary programs where we were able to emphasize how students can creatively contribute to the space, leaving behind a legacy for future students,” says Chantelle.  The video from Christ the King at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cdDxjWEkuxI shows the “First Nations, First Plants” plaque and shots of the garden, planting, and celebration events.

At Tarbiyah Islamic School, we were working with children up to grade five. Chantelle engaged the older students (grade 4/5) and emphasized their role as mentors for the younger grades. This worked especially well as they were very interested in caring and protecting the garden.

Overall, Chantelle describes the advantage of working with schools, as there was immediate access to classes of students who could get involved with the project. Starting out by involving the whole school was beneficial as they were able to find the most engaged teachers and classes.

Ottawa

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Country Fun summer camp at Tucker House

Ottawa’s model of engagement was to introduce a competitive application process for three faith communities to participate. Ottawa animator, Katherine Forster, also approached a targeted number of faith communities to see if they had a new garden project identified that would fit the Ontario150 criteria. Katherine felt it was important to approach places of worship that had active gardening volunteers that were already working outdoors and had a vision for their spaces. This would ensure that any new youth-led projects would have a high rate of probability for success and longevity.  

In the end, only one faith community applied through the competitive process but this partner was an exemplary faith community to work with, having a very strong youth-led component. Five students from Saint Albert French elementary school agreed to design and lead a community garden project after being approached by their principal. The students completed this project for the most part on their own, designing the garden, doing research on the best methods to plant and grow specific vegetables and fruit, purchasing equipment, recruiting friends and family to help install the raised garden bed, and creating a watering and weeding schedule for the summer (when the school was closed).  “This success was ultimately down to the clear instructions of the principal and the school being able to identify the students who would be the best youth leaders to help ensure the success of this project,” says Katherine.

The other two faith communities who participated in this project were two that were directly approached, since they were known for their youth programs – the ecumenical Tucker House Youth Summer Camps and St. John’s Anglican Church, South March.  This direct recruitment approach worked well as both were keen on expanding their gardens and garden programming and had the established programs to involve the youth.  Targeted conversations, having a flexible program that could include different ages of youth and different kinds of gardens, and slowly building these relationships while also being clear with the deliverables were critical to this recruitment option.  

Survey responses on favourite experiences from Ottawa included, “being able to learn about the garden and getting to contribute to it as well,” “team building and new experience with gardening and harvesting,” “labouring for my nation and getting to see how things grow in Ontario,” and “tasting all the delicious bounty from the garden.”

Katherine reports that using this model, they have learned how critical it is that the faith communities identify the best youth themselves, as they have built relationships between their adult volunteers and the youth and this will also ensure future success beyond the project time limits.

Conclusion

Throughout the Growing Community initiative, the three Regional Animators mentored youth participants in leading volunteers of all ages to work and learn together while creating in the gardens. The project included an education component for the youth as well as a culminating celebration event in each garden. Youth assisted in producing on-line content for Province-wide distribution including news, photographs, and stories.

Building gardens and building relationships go hand in hand; you need to have one to have the other. Before starting a garden project, establish sound relationships and trust. During the building, find ways to enhance relationships by learning together.  The obvious experience of planting and caring for a garden nurtures connection. The upkeep of the garden is also a way to ensure these relationships continue to thrive. There are all sorts of opportunities for creative and innovative developments in addition to the rich opportunity that gardens offer in supporting inclusivity and diversity in any given community.  

“Our sesquicentennial provided a unique opportunity for organizations to develop new partnerships and innovative ways to engage youth in their communities through the Ontario150 Partnership Program,” says Eleanor McMahon, Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport.  “Faith & the Common Good created an exceptional opportunity for 600 youth to develop sustainable urban design and management skills while helping preserve their environment – a legacy to be proud of and that many will continue to enjoy.”

To find out more about Growing Community, visit the project webpage at http://greeningsacredspaces.net/ontario-150-projects/.