'We all work together'

Busy like bees, members of Wood Shop and Hives for Humanity collaborate and contribute to the greater community

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On a sunny day in May, Kevin Edward Sleziek is preparing reclaimed wood for construction in a busy False Creek Flats wood shop.

He works with the Wood Shop Worker’s Co-op, which together with community partner Hives for Humanity, liberates wood waste to craft custom furniture, millwork, and beekeeping and pollinator garden projects across the Lower Mainland.

The groups create meaningful work and training for folks living with barriers to employment, while creating an alternative business model that contributes to social and environmental justice. Sleziek has been involved with Hives for Humanity for six years and describes himself as a jack of all trades.

“Beekeeper, woodworker, brew master, firefighter... you name it, I’ve done almost everything. Anything that’s interesting. I hate boring work,” he says. “I like the physical work. I’ve done wood working my whole life. I grew up on a farm, building everything.”

Hives for Humanity and the Wood Shop let him meet new people, he says, while fostering a sense of community. He’s proud of all the projects he’s contributed to, citing working with kids on beekeeping projects, along with construction at the Italian Cultural Centre and Vancouver Police Department building as highlights.

“When it's built, I made it with my own hands. I don’t tolerate machine-made products—they’re crap for one thing and you can’t put your heart into it,” he says. “Working with the bees and the Wood Shop, you’re focused and working on all kinds of things. There’s always something for somebody to do, either by yourself or with others. We all work together.”

Chris Nichols, The Wood Shop Worker’s Co-op operations coordinator, co-founded the shop in 2014 with Jessica Valentine and Maxim Piche. It launched out of GroundSwell, an alternative business school focused on social entrepreneurship, and opened its first shop in a garage in the Downtown Eastside.

“Going through Groundswell, we talked about trying to form businesses, social enterprises, those kind of things, that didn’t have profit as the main motive and could affect change,” Nichols says.

In summers between studying sociology, Nichols would make money building cabins, decks and fences. It seemed a natural step to form an organization around diverting wood waste.

Wood Shop began by reusing pallet wood found in alleyways. Nowadays, it recycles large, used bed frames that would otherwise be chipped and burned, thanks in part to the shop’s collaboration with Mattress Recycling Vancouver.

On any given day, Nichols says, two to three people can be found in the shop, working on projects, breaking down wood, recovering wood, meeting clients and going over designs—whatever needs doing to keep the next job coming.

Sarah Common, CEO of Hives for Humanity, says she first got to know the Wood Shop team while building a bee space at 580 Powell St., next door to Groundswell’s headquarters. Their community partnership started there, building a kitchen and display cases for honey and candles.

The non-profit Hives for Humanity began in 2012 with one bee colony with the aim to create meaningful opportunities with its surrounding community through the culture of the hive and gardens.

“The experience was really meaningful for everyone. The product was really beautiful and we’re really proud of it,” Common
says. “Then, there’s community ownership over it because folks were involved in building it, so we wanted to continue.”

Now, people build pollinator gardens, pollinator planters, habitats for wild bees and equipment for beekeeping.

“We have our folks liberating the wood that would be going to the dump, doing training, and gaining skills, and sharing skills through that process, and then with that wood, we can build the products we need for our programming,” she says.

Prior to the partnership with Wood Shop, Hives for Humanity would need to acquire material for projects from sources such as Home Depot.

“That’s how the conversation began,” says Nichols, “that the expense of the wood can at least go into the labour that it takes to recover that wood rather than going to a corporation.

Wood Shop has worked on projects for businesses like Big Rock Urban Brewery, the Fairmont Waterfront and Italian Cultural Centre, and has partnered with supportive housing across Vancouver and Fresh Roots.

“What we find is that people want to work and the experience of having their work valued and acknowledged is incredibly meaningful and develops self-worth and community pride,” says Common.

Common, who has volunteered and worked in the Downtown Eastside since 2006, says one of the most valuable pieces of the puzzle for participants is developing skills such as communication and teamwork.

“People don’t need to become woodworkers, or beekeepers, or gardeners, to carry these skills forward,” she says.

Nichols agrees and says Wood Shop includes low-barrier engagement. People can start by breaking down wood and then move on to different tasks over time.

Common adds that mentorship work has three to four people in training with one to two staff members, and learning is experiential.  She says anyone who wants to get involved is welcome and can come to public workshops or stop by the Hastings Urban Farm (58 West Hastings St.).

The Wood Shop also hosts weekend build-your-own workshops for the public, where people sign up to use reclaimed wood to build their own furniture. The shop has also run corporate team-building workshops.

“People can get a feel of building something and being more connected to the pieces that they own,” says Nichols.

Businesses or residential buildings are also welcome to get in touch to collaborate to build planters or pieces for offices and homes.

“Somebody who can afford to come and take a weekend, and do a course, can build their own table for their kitchen where they have food with their family, in their apartment or house. They can be connected and get that interconnection through this wood that connects them to this community that doesn’t have a kitchen, doesn’t have a house, doesn’t have a weekend to spend,” says Common.

The work at Hives for Humanity is modelled after the bee hive, a model that the Wood Shop follows.

“All the bees have their place, they all have different tasks, and they’re all meaningful... they all contribute to the greater community,” Common says. Elias Billy, who has been involved with Hives for Humanity for five years and the Wood Shop for two, took a break from pulling nails out of wood to speak with Megaphone.

“I’m involved in a lot of the plants we’re growing, and edible plants, and I’m involved with the bees as well,” he says. “I like
doing the beehives and planter boxes.”

He started off gardening as a teenager in Surrey and has always loved hands-on work and the smell of cedar.

“It’s fun... just not in the winter. I just tough it out because I know I’m doing something good,” he laughs. “Working with everybody is the best part. The worst part is the slivers."

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