Neighbourhood houses help us all live, work, and play on the land

April 29th, 2019

As Metro Vancouver celebrates Neighbourhood House Week (May 5-11, 2019), these hubs of the community reveal the benefits of getting back to nature.

Heavy rain pours down as a group of schoolchildren huddle on the deck of a large log cabin in a Belcarra forest. But these kids aren't sheltering from the downpour.

Rain or shine, they are here to learn orienteering at Sasamat Outdoor Centre, one of the network of neighbourhood houses serving communities across Metro Vancouver.

The Centre sits on the western shore of Sasamat Lake, surrounded by woodland, on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, Stó:lō, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.

Today, the children are also rock climbing, learning archery and shelter building, building teamwork skills on a low ropes course, making camp crafts, and kayaking.

For Sasamat's executive director Kristen Hyodo, this neighbourhood house is all about connecting local children with the land, both educationally and through their own experiences.

"We can nurture really amazing stewards by bringing people in at a young age and giving them a positive experience with the outdoors through play and recreation," she says.

"We teach them a little bit along the way, with the hope that these children grow up to be adults who care about the planet."

Resurfacing history, sharing values

Learning from the past and building on the present to create a better future is at the heart of the neighbourhood house movement.

At Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House, the Resurfacing History project does so by sharing traditional Indigenous land-based teachings.

This inner-city House on Broadway near Fraser may seem an unlikely place for land-based learning—but it was built on unceded Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh lands, where black bears used to roam.

Resurfacing History brings together local Indigenous peoples to share their expertise, passing on their own practices to deepen everyone's understanding of the land around us.

Open to people of all cultural backgrounds, the sessions teach about gathering food and plant medicine, and sharing resources—such as pine-needle basket making—in friendly groups.

Program leader and Indigenous community developer, Jolene Andrew (Gitxsan and Wetʼsuwetʼen Nations), says her whole culture is founded on land-based teachings.

"Our spirituality, our beliefs, our value systems, and our principles are all land-based," she says.

"So I really want to strive to make cultural practices accessible for community members, to make it easy for them, and inspiring for them, and joyful for them."

And joyful it is. At a pine-needle basket making session, the group is convivial and supportive, as participants share their own skills, teachings, and experiences.

Participant Lori Weidenhammer explains she was drawn to Resurfacing History through her love of gardening, food, and the practice of neighbour sharing with neighbour.

"It's so important right now," she says.

"It helps to fight isolation and bring people of all cultures together, to share their wisdom — it's an intermarriage of culture around food and gardening."

Creating an edible garden

Bringing people together over food and gardening is exactly what the North Shore Neighbourhood House is doing with its Edible Garden project.

Based on Loutet Farm in North Vancouver, on the unceded lands of the Squamish, Stó:lō, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples, this social enterprise sits at the edge of a forest walkway, next to a park where children and students gather.

Staff and volunteers sustainably grow fruits and vegetables to share with the community, while flowers blossom with the sound of bees in the nearby pollinator garden.

Program manager Claire McGillivray estimates that thousands of people, of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities are empowered by volunteering on the farm every year.

"Some people come here and all they want to do is wheelbarrow and dig and get a workout in, get sweaty and get dirty, and that's great, we have work for them," she says.

"But even if you can't bend over or pick stuff up, there's always things to do. You can do seeding at a table. One guy turned out to be great at cutting and arranging flowers."

The food grown on the farm is sold at very low cost, along with other local community farm produce, at Community Food Hub events at the North Shore Neighbourhood House, in partnership with Greater Vancouver Food Bank.

Soon, the Edible Garden project will also start supplying produce to be transformed into cooked lunches for the children in daycare at the House.

Back at Loutet Farm, McGillivray says people find a sense of community here, as they meet and get to know other volunteers who drop in to the farm every week.

"We like having lots of different people here. The conversation that happens between volunteers and between us is just so cool. The interactions are so special," she said.

"Even if you're a newcomer and your English isn't too good, everyone can connect over food and plants. Everyone eats. It's a really universal way to connect to people."

Neighbourhood House Community Food Hubs
In partnership with the Greater Vancouver Food Bank. Find Community Food Hubs here.