The Healthy Minds Community Garden in the District of Fort St. James from above. Sandi King Taylor/Facebook photo

‘Summer from hell’: vandals rob Fort St. James community garden following devastating wildfire season

The community rallied to keep the Health Minds Community Garden open in Fort St. James

When the Healthy Minds Community Garden was vandalized in the District of Fort Saint James, the community rallied, throwing their support behind a garden that had always been intended to help those who needed it.

Greg Kovacs and Sandi Taylor started the garden, which is located just behind the district office, in the summer of 2015, after Kovacs successfully ran a mental health garden at his home in Dog Creek the summer before.

“We worked with a life skills worker and she brought clients out and and it was really beneficial, and helped a lot of people, and we thought, well, let’s do this in town.”

From there, Kovacs and Taylor applied for a Northern Health IMAGINE Grant, highlighting the potential health benefits of such a garden within their community. And the benefits are plentiful: Kovacs says having a community garden can help people get out and socialize when doing so otherwise might make them anxious, it brings people outside to enjoy nature and it even provides low-income residents with the option to grow their own healthy foods.

Low-income people and those who struggle with their mental health aren’t the only ones who benefit. Many seniors and homeless people also have plots to grow vegetables, as well as many other community members.

The local schools have also been very involved in the garden. Kovacs says the sign for the garden was designed by a computer class at Fort St. James Secondary School. It was then carved by a wood-shop class and painted by an art class. The wood-shop class has also built several flower beds for the garden.

The elementary school has also been helping out. One teacher brought classes down for two years, to help out with construction and garden, but this year, the school decided to build its own garden, says Kovacs. “Which is great. Part of our motive too is just to inspire people to garden, even on their own, because we believe in the health benefits of it.”

Kovacs says the garden is more than just a vegetable plot. He says Taylor spends every day there throughout the summer, where she tends the flowers they grow, as well as helping others grow their own plants and vegetables.

“Our idea was to have not just a place to plant vegetables,” says Kovacs; “we wanted it to be like a social place, almost like a park, where anybody can go and just take in the flowers, and we’re right on the lake. We have a beautiful lake view.”

When the vandals struck on the evening of September 10, it wasn’t the first time someone had vandalized the garden – but it was the worst. Last summer, someone came in and stole some vegetables, mostly carrots. “This year was a lot worse,” says Kovacs, “And they took a lot more stuff and they left a mess, and you know, it was really devastating … it was pretty much the summer from hell for us here.”

Kovacs was evacuated from his Dog Creek home due to the wildfires, while the district spent much of the summer under an evacuation alert. “So tensions were high and emotions were high and it was a really tough time for a lot of people, including us … It’s just been a long summer.”

He says when they first realized the garden had been vandalized their reaction was, “‘Oh my God, I don’t get it. Let’s throw in the towel, it’s not worth it.’

“Some people get so excited, being able to grow their own food, and then to have it just stolen at the end of the season… it’s pretty devastating. And it’s bad for us because you know people hear about this and they’re not going to garden. Like, ‘Why would we spend all summer working there if it’s just going to be stolen?’”

But within minutes of announcing the vandalism – and that Kovacs and Taylor were considering closing the garden – in a Facebook post, two local businesses had called to offer to donate security cameras, and a local grocery store offered to replace what had been stolen. Individual community members also offered up goods from their own gardens and private donations to the keep the garden, which now runs on funds from the Fort St. James Community Foundation, afloat.

The community was rallying behind them.

“We went from the depths of hell to ‘oh my God, this really matters to people.’ It was overwhelming, and definitely strengthened our resolve to keep the garden going, because it is important to people,” says Kovacs.

But the next night, on September 11, the thieves struck again.

Kovacs mentioned the idea of putting up security fencing has also been considered, but that they “really don’t want to.”

He continued: “We want the garden to be open to everyone – whether you garden there or not, come down and visit.”

Even after the second night of theft and vandalism, Kovacs says the garden will open next year.

“The community has pulled together, and we will overcome, and we will thrive. In spite of the summer from hell.”



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