Vital People: Cultivating connection and community at Serenity Farm


As he picks beans at Serenity Farm in Saanich, Dave Johnson share his passion for community-building.

“When I retired, I knew that this was a place that I wanted to come and give my time back to the community,” says Dave of volunteering at Serenity Farm.

The former executive director of the John Howard Society spent 35 years helping Victoria’s most marginalized people — something he continues to do here at Serenity Farm every Tuesday morning.

“I like gardening — I’m not the best, but I’m a good worker, so I like the physical activity,” Dave says. “But what I really like is, I like to see the changes in the participants. Seeing that progress, it makes me feel good.”

The Blenkinsop Valley garden is a place of hope and healing for people with mental health and addiction issues.

“The garden is a therapeutic space, so it’s a place for people to come together, creating community, grow organic food,” explains Serenity Farm project manager Sheila Weitman.

“We grow fabulous vegetables here, we have beautiful flowers,” Dave adds. “For a lot of people, they’ve never seen a carrot growing, or they don’t know how tomatoes grow.”

Participants — who come from downtown and the Seven Oaks mental health facility just behind the garden — are involved in every step of the planting, growing, and harvesting.

“If you can imagine spending all your time downtown or in an institution, this is quite a sanctuary and it is also for the workers who come here and for volunteers,” Sheila says.

Cultivating connection and camaraderie, volunteers and participants work side-by-side and are encouraged to take home the bounty they grow.

“They’re all housed, they all have supports, but they all need good, positive activities to help them out with their life,” Dave explains.

Serenity Farm participant Graham Kilshaw likes to come because he’s passionate about small-scale gardening.

“I enjoy local, organic, small scale, no effort food production, so I’ve been making these clay seed balls,” Graham says. “I like the camaraderie and the fact that we’re actually producing something useful.”

As for Dave — who’s dedicated his life to giving back — he just hopes that seeing the transformational power of the garden will inspire others to make a difference.

“I’ve worked with the community for 35 years,” Dave says. “I know that every little bit that people can give back to the community just makes our community a better place.”

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