Through gardening and upcycling furniture, this group is sowing the seeds of wellness

Brenda Halley, Jamie Hearn and Patricia Waddleton are pictured on a spring day in the Wellness Group's greenhouse. (Andrea McGuire/CBC - image credit)
Brenda Halley, Jamie Hearn and Patricia Waddleton are pictured on a spring day in the Wellness Group's greenhouse. (Andrea McGuire/CBC - image credit)
Andrea McGuire/CBC
Andrea McGuire/CBC

It's an early spring day, and Jamie Hearn is sitting in a glass greenhouse outside the Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in downtown St. John's. She's just finished cutting the eyes off a bundle of seed potatoes — and now Hearn reaches for a young tomato seedling.

"It was dead at the house," says Hearn, "and we managed to bring it back to life."

Hearn's here today with the Wellness Group — a group started by Eastern Health social worker Brenda Halley in 2010. Now co-run by Halley and Eastern Health mental health and addictions dietitian Patricia Waddleton, the group gets together at least twice a week to garden, cook, snowshoe, practise yoga and upcycle furniture, among other things.

"On a hot day, which is not today, we hide under these trees and do yoga — and then we sort of throw Popsicles at people because we're nice and thirsty," Halley laughs. "So it's wonderful."

Hearn's always taking home struggling plants and reviving them for the group, Halley explains. Hearn's also responsible for the group's greenhouse sign, which she painted on a piece of slate from the cathedral that survived the Great Fire of 1892. The sign reads: "Wellness Group: Take What You Need and Leave the Rest."

"We did that purposely," says Halley. "We don't lock the doors. And so we say to people in the community, if you're having someone over for dinner [and you] run out of lettuce, come over and grab a head of lettuce — it's fine."

Andrea McGuire/CBC
Andrea McGuire/CBC

Hearn's been with the Wellness Group since the very beginning.

"It gets me up and out of bed and out down here with the fresh air and everything," she says. "Because I wouldn't get out of bed, because my back was too sore to go out around. And now that [my back's] after coming around a bit, it's a really nice place to be."

'If your heart is hardening, get into gardening'

Initially, said Halley, the Wellness Group grew out of the addictions counselling she was offering to groups in 2010. At the time, Halley says, she'd offer one round of group counselling during the afternoon — and then many of the same people would stick around for her evening counselling sessions, too.

"If we want to make some changes to our drugs of choice, which most people do, that's one way to do it," says Halley, referring to traditional talk therapy. "But it got me to thinking that there has to be more to our wellness."

Halley started out with a wellness walking group. But before long, members began asking to branch out from just walking — and eventually, the group's community garden began to flourish. Now, Halley says, the Wellness Group has a real passion for the garden.

"We were gardening last year on a Friday afternoon when it started to rain heavily and it was about quarter to six. But nobody stopped. Everybody kept shovelling and digging and I thought, 'Oh, they'll never speak to me again.' And people were so happy to be doing this and to be helping others and also, you know, helping to grow something," says Halley.

Primarily, Halley says, the intake process for the group occurs through Eastern Health's mental health and addictions programs. But Halley and her co-facilitator, Patricia Waddleton, emphasized that they don't like to label participants.

"These are a group of people who come together," says Waddleton. "[They] just want to have a wonderful experience and to increase their wellness, you know, and be healthy. And that's what we all want, right?"

According to longtime volunteer Patsy Gosse, the garden's biggest problem last year was that the group just didn't harvest enough. The basil crop, Gosse said, would have doubled if they'd picked the herb steadily during the season.

"It's just amazing what it does for people. You know, my mental health, everybody's mental health. You don't have to have a mental health problem to benefit in the garden," says Gosse. "One of the things that I think I wrote in a little bit of poetry is, 'if your heart is hardening, get into gardening.'"

Andrea McGuire/CBC
Andrea McGuire/CBC

Upcycling furniture to pay it forward

The community garden's been the heart of the Wellness Group over the past few years. But recently, furniture upcycling has become a major passion project for several group members. In partnership with the Home Again Furniture Bank non-profit in St. John's, the Wellness Group's been busy sanding, painting and refinishing used furniture for Home Again's new thrift store, Again and Again.

Until now, Home Again has been focused on collecting used furniture from donors and delivering it to people in need, said Home Again director of operations Amy Tulk. While Home Again is still collecting and delivering furniture, says Tulk, Again and Again will serve as an outlet for items that aren't suitable for their clients. All proceeds will support the non-profit's work.

"Most of our clients have little small apartments or, you know, bed-sitting rooms, that sort of thing. So these big clunky pieces, they don't have a purpose in there," says Tulk. "There's some antique pieces. I mean, antique things are not for everybody."

Ahead of the thrift store's grand opening, Wellness Group member Jamie Hearn has been helping Home Again prepare on a near-daily basis. For Hearn, this is about paying it forward.

Andrea McGuire/CBC
Andrea McGuire/CBC

"They gave me everything, Home Again," says Hearn. "Chesterfield, ottoman, coffee table, kitchen table — everything that I needed. So I just want to give back, and it's fun. Somewhere to go every day."

Since joining the Wellness Group in 2010, Hearn says, the group has given her a sense of dignity — and a sense of hope.

"It helped me get over what was going on with me," she says. "And it made me feel at home."

'We all need wellness'

At the end of every growing season, the Wellness Group gathers together for a harvest meal. Potatoes, brussels sprouts, carrots, onions and all kinds of fresh herbs were on this year's menu. And for anyone interested, a bundle of take-home basil was on hand, complete with instructions for making the Wellness Group's famous basil pesto.

Andrea McGuire/CBC
Andrea McGuire/CBC

Furniture upcycling will continue into the coming cold months — and this year, Halley says, winter gardening is in the works as well.

"We all need to decompress," says Halley. "We all need wellness, and we all need to learn how to live more well and to sort of be as calm as we can and as grounded as we can. And these are the tools that help us."

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