Daycare students and Drop-In Centre clients work together to give back.

Published July 31, 2013 by Alyssa Quirico in Fast Forward Weekly.

In a city dominated by oil and gas executives, sometimes it’s hard to see the downtown core as more than a place of business deals and power suits. However, five years ago, Downtown Calgary and the Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre created a garden oasis amidst a concrete jungle with a community garden on Third Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues S.W.

While community gardens have become common, this one is unique in that the gardeners so far have been Drop-In Centre (DI) volunteers and clients. This year, students from five downtown daycares have also been invited to lend a hand by planting flowers to brighten up the street, and harvesting herbs and vegetables that help provide over 3,000 meals a day at the DI.

Maggie Schofield, executive director of Downtown Calgary, says the purpose behind the garden was really to foster a “sense of place and community spirit.” Since the daycare students are indeed the downtown citizens of the future, she says, it only made sense to include them.

“Any time people see kids around, it just sort of softens the experience of downtown. It makes it more human,” she says.

Jorge Canpusano, internal volunteer co-ordinator at the DI, says gardening is an opportunity for clients to find meaning and fulfilment by giving back to their community. “They’re responsible for something, they’re taking initiative in other areas of their lives. You can see the impact,” says Canpusano.

DI executive director Debbie Newman says the garden has also helped engage the downtown community by dispelling stereotypes and fears around homeless people. Schofield notes that people from nearby businesses will often stop by on their coffee break to chat with the gardeners and even help out.

“I think in the beginning there was probably some resistance to putting a garden into the downtown core and what it would invite,” says Newman. “People seem to think that if you have homeless people, it equals crime going up in the neighbourhood, and I think they’ve seen something very different.”

She adds that the innocence of children also provides DI clients with a non-judgemental audience.

Surrounding businesses have stepped in to support the initiative — Caffe Artigiano, for example, provides free coffee to gardeners after they’re done working.

Also new to the community garden this year is a street piano — adorned in planters, of course — at which anyone is welcome to take a seat at the ivory keys. Chairs are also set up in front of the gardens so passersby can stop and enjoy the music. The piano was restored by local artisan Jesse Moffatt, whose design was inspired by the 2013 flood.

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