Last August, my partner and I moved from Ontario to Saint John so I could pursue a position with L’Arche Saint John. While I have gotten to know the rhythm of this community and the wonderful people in it, I only really know a version of it – a version that has lived through a global pandemic. The stories of Pat and Stéphane jamming weekly at the local Irish pub, or the art show by Creative Connections at the Saint John Arts Centre, or the John Pike Memorial Bowling Extravaganza, or the McKim Carol Sing at Christmas – all these stories of gathering, friendship, and community tradition are just that: stories. I notice a twinkle in Vic’s eyes when she shares these memories, and I have longed to live them.
I am sure I am not alone in this – several other members in our community also arrived during COVID including Jake & Tonya (Board members), Katie (Program Assistant), Sebastian (House Assistant), and of course, Sarah Keyes (core member). Selfishly, and for the health of our core members, assistants, and friends, I ache for these events and gatherings to return; I ache for this community to be in a season of blooming after a difficult 16 months of isolation.
In the past few weeks, I have begun to witness the vitality and energy of this community when it is in bloom. Thanks to assistants Katie and Sarah B., our Garden Accessibility Initiative has become an important instigator of joy and connection – two things that lived in the shadow of the pandemic.
I share an office with our Executive Director, Zoël, and our window overlooks the garden. Zoël loves to bake (and share his delicious baking – lucky us!) and repeatedly told our crew of gardeners: “Plant anything you want, do anything you want, all I ask is that we have a rhubarb plant.” A couple weeks ago, a volunteer came by with some plants, including a stalk of rhubarb. That something so simple – a stalk of rhubarb – could spark so much joy in Zoël was magical. It is proudly planted right outside our office window.
Plenty of research shows that being in nature improves our mood and mental health, and we have witnessed this transformation in our core members at McKim House. After a long winter of being cooped up, days spent in the garden have noticeably improved moods, energy, and patience. Donned in sunhats and sunscreen, the fresh air and physical tasks outside are life-giving.
Our delight in the garden is happily shared with friends and neighbours, old and new. Working in the garden one evening, a passing neighbour called over, “Looking good!”. Someone a few doors down noticed us struggling to finish mowing the lawn on a tricky incline and came to finish the job for us. “In all these years”, they said, “I haven’t seen anything done with this land!”. A friend of a Board member heard about our project and built us a beautiful wooden bench to enjoy by our bonfires. We received a garden pond with landscaping stones and several bags of mulch from someone who was selling it on Facebook Marketplace, but generously donated it when they heard about our garden project. Dozens of plants, soil and bags of mulch have been dropped off by local businesses and friends old and new.
In this way, the garden has become an important space of social connection for our community. Volunteers, artists from Creative Connections, past and present Board members, and family of core members have been instrumental with planting, landscaping, and weeding our garden. After almost a year of seeing names on paper but never meeting face-to-face because of COVID, the garden has facilitated meeting people in our greater community in-person. What a gift it is to get to know the breadth of the community that loves and supports L’Arche Saint John.
With the garden in bloom, community vacation plans underway, our upcoming back deck concert and with the announcement of our dinner gala event with Frank McKenna taking place in September, there is an energy of renewal in the air. This community that I have come to know and love is blooming once again, and radiant as ever. I wish for you the same I wish for L’Arche Saint John: a summer of unfettered joy, a deep sense of connection with others and the Earth, fabulous floppy sunhats, and a thriving rhubarb plant.
Rachel Vander Vennen
Community Development Coordinator