'I was the walking dead': Former addicts, criminals now making maple syrup

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'I was the walking dead': Former addicts, criminals now making maple syrup

A New Brunswick sugar bush has been growing thanks to the efforts of young men looking to leave their life of addiction and crime behind.  

The Village of Hope in Vespra, located just outside of Tracy, is a men's centre focused on providing former criminals and drugs addicts a chance to rebuild their lives far removed from the vices that led them to "less than ideal" lifestyles. 

This season's early spring-like weather has given the men an early chance to venture into the woods to start tapping thousands of trees for sap. 

"I'm a different person because of this now," said Dillon MacKenzie, who was doing hard drugs while living in a tent. "It's great, a beautiful place, full of opportunity." 

MacKenzie, originally from Woodstock, enjoys drinking the freshly tapped maple water straight from the tin pail before it's even been boiled down into syrup. He says feels the Christian centre has given him a second chance. 

"It's a much better place here than being homeless," said MacKenzie. " It's a change, a good change, for the better." 

It's a sentiment echoed by Shawn Turner, who has been with the Village of Hope for five months. 

"I basically had no direction, I was the walking dead so to speak," said Turner. "I had no purpose and now coming to The Village of Hope it gives me hope and a purpose. Especially doing this tap. It gives me the purpose to give back."   

The majority of the maple syrup will be bottled and given back to those who have donated to the program. 

"Every year we try to improve and better what we're doing," said Greg Rasmussen, program leader with the Village of Hope. "So we're aiming for 1,300 trees this year." 

Rasmussen is a graduate of the program himself. It's been nine years since he came to the village after a period of his life was spent without a home and on drugs. 

"This program gives structure," said Rasmussen. "The reason why we do it is it teaches the men a work ethic. And it teaches them the value of a product." 

The recent string of perfect weather with warm days and cold nights has the men tapping trees earlier than any season prior. 

"This is the earliest we've ever been in the woods," said Rasmussen. "And if this is a good year, we hope to maybe have vacuum lines installed next year."