Heartbeats: Catching up with Woodwynn Farms, fostering recovery and community on the farm near Victoria
Photos and story by Jamila Douhaibi
It’s a local solution to addiction and homelessness. It also happens to be a working farm with a market selling organic produce and raising animals, complete with a busy summer balcony cafe and a woodworking shop. Individuals who were once living on the street are now learning to farm and to craft beautiful wooden doors in the therapeutic community of Woodwynn Farms.
In August 2015, Megaphone visited the 193-acre Central Saanich farm to find out what they were doing to change people’s lives. Two years later, we went back to talk to founder Richard Leblanc and find out what is happening on the farm now.
Woodwynn still offers its services free to anyone who is experiencing addiction and homelessness, in need of support to reclaim their self-worth and get back into the community. The Royal Jubilee detox centre continues to act as the main referral point for participants entering the program.
Successful graduation from the Woodwynn program is achieved when the participant, their peers, and the program leaders all agree that an individual is ready to leave.
A typical day includes yoga at 5:45 a.m., breakfast, morning meeting and check-in, farm work, lunch, continued farm work, dinner, and free time.
In 2015 there were only two participants, but the farm currently has eight people taking part in the program. One of the reasons for this, says Leblanc, is that there has “definitely been more acceptance” at the municipal level. The program has now seen more than 60 participants, with nearly 50 per cent of those people successfully completing the program in one year. They've had only one police incident in their eight years of operation.
Individuals are usually at the farm for one year, but one participant has been there for 2.5 years. Leblanc says that “the purpose is to be here for the right amount of time, and that’s completely up to the individual.”
Residents live in 13 motor homes, which sit together on the farm. All of these housing units have been donated to Woodwynn farms.
Given the recent provincial election, Leblanc says that “when the dust finally settles, it will be different” in terms of support. He says that “decision-makers at the top have an impact” on the ability for the farm and its programs to run successfully.
Woodwynn is currently waiting to hear back about an application with the BC Agricultural Land Commission concerning a three-year plan to grow their program to allow for 40 participants. Leblanc says they currently have “a lot of empty beds” and that it’s critical to grow because of the number of homeless people and the rising number of deaths on the streets.
Given the space available at Woodwynn Farms and the difference that a supportive community can have in an individual's recovery, Leblanc believes that the farm is an “under-utilized asset to help people.”
In the two years since our last visit, Victoria’s Super InTent City came to a head and closed as temporary and permanent housing became available. “I think tent city was an amazing place to showcase the severity of the problems,” Leblanc says. He thinks it showed the importance of creating long-term solutions, and demonstrated the need for positive, stable environments like Woodwynn Farms.
A holistic approach
Just as tent city was an indicator of a societal issue in a world where “there is no system, let’s be honest,” Leblanc says, the fentanyl overdose crisis has also provided “an enormous tsunami of awareness” to people. Overall, the “level of awareness in the public has shot through the roof ” over the past few years, says Leblanc. “We’ve barely scratched the surface of our potential while the problem gets bigger,” says Leblanc.
Because of the farm’s holistic approach, participants are working on their recovery while also doing amazing work with the livestock, the market and the woodworking shop, and Leblanc believes that this would be “otherwise wasted talent on the streets.” By being given the chance to practice skills and increase their confidence, participants improve their self-worth drastically. Leblanc describes one participant who came from a tough place and is now working as a cabinetmaker on the mainland.
But “homelessness is getting worse, the overdose crisis is getting worse... and I think we need to take some fresh approaches,” says Leblanc.
“We’re having the biggest epidemic—possibly in the history of Canada—and it’s not getting the attention it needs.”
Leblanc believes the intensity of the issue isn’t being matched by a proper response, and the “root cause is stigma,” against mental health and addiction issues that often translate into homelessness or incarceration.
Woodwynn Farm's indoor market is open year-round for people to come and support the program through purchasing produce and other local items.
After visitors leave the market, they often walk through the Peace Garden labyrinth, which was largely constructed by artist Deryk Houston and his wife Elizabeth Wellburn.
On one end of the garden there are two recently erected curved stained-glass pillars that were positioned to best capture the sunlight. Not only talking about these structures, Leblanc says, “living here, I get to see these unique and beautiful moments.”