Welcome to “How Permaculture Changed My Life”, a new blog series featuring personal stories from past students speaking about how permaculture changed the direction of their outlooks and careers. The third in the series is from our friend Vaden Somers:
I work at William Roper Hull School, a school for kids with special needs in Calgary. I’m the Industrial Arts instructor there – woodworking, automotive. I’m also active in the outdoor education program. The kids I work with are not traditional learners; they all have complex mental health issues, so I try to use a range of approaches to engage them. The aim is always therapeutic in nature, to ensure that the kids are regulated and calm so they are able to learn.
My initial interest in permaculture was personal. Six years ago, I bought a house in downtown Calgary and started thinking about sustainable infrastructure. I goggled around and of course Rob’s name popped up. At the time I also had a friend who was taking an online PDC (with Geoff Lawton), so I began to delve a bit more into permaculture, mainly through watching Verge’s online videos and discussing the material with my friend.
About a year later, an opportunity came knocking through Hull Services, the child services organization that operates the school. I started to entertain the idea of taking some of the adjacent property – four to five acres with old growth trees and nice fields – and turning it into a village where kids can engage and commune with nature. At the time I was working with my colleague who took the Geoff Lawton PDC, and he drafted up a permaculture design plan. As luck would have it, Fluor Engineering, a nearby engineering firm and a big donator to Hull Services, approached us and expressed their interest in working on a foundational project. I sent off the design plan that was already on my desk, and within three to four months, we were partnered up on the construction of a passive solar greenhouse. The entire process took about two years from start to finish, with the greenhouse completed at the end of September. It was during this process that I finally made direct contact with Rob.
I remember Rob visiting the campus that first time. I knew that he was super busy, so I was expecting him to come by, say yeah you’re doing a good thing, a handshake, and good luck. But I think he connected with the same part of permaculture I’m interested in, the social component, and how the project can build community and utilize it as a source of strength and healing. In an educational milieu, community is essential because it’s a strong entry point for meaningful therapeutic interaction. If we don’t have that relational acuity with the kids, if we don’t build an inviting and trusted space where they can feel safe, they won’t grab hold of anything.
The permaculture community’s pretty unique in that its members seem willing to work in ways that typical business-minded people won’t. As soon as I connected with Rob, he told me that I should enroll into a PDC right away and to worry about payment later on. One day out of the blue, he sends me his plans for the greenhouse – just like that, no questions asked.
“Here are the plans, give them to Fluor, tell them they can do whatever they want with them.”
These relationships in permaculture just don’t exist anywhere else. I think the connection with Fluor was really cool for Rob as well, and that he saw a potential to leverage that relationship. Engineers talking to engineers and all that. Fluor ended up taking Rob’s plans and beefing them up, telling me that the plans were probably worth four to six thousand dollars if they were to generate them for a prospective client. I invited Rob to teach his Calgary PDC’s at our beautiful campus, which he’s now been doing for the last two years. With the addition of the new greenhouse, students taking the Verge PDC can use it as a case study. It’s definitely a win-win situation all around.
There are countless educational opportunities with the new greenhouse, from curriculum tie-ins to biology and science. The potential for food production is important because most of the kids we work with come from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. They’re undernourished and malnourished. Many show up with no breakfast and no lunch, so we have breakfast club and lunch club where they can access good food. Having food production from the greenhouse would definitely help towards improving that local access.
But my primary interest remains, again and always, in the greenhouse’s potential for healing. We have a full age range of kids at the school, from five all the way up to eighteen year-olds. They’ve been diagnosed with everything from Aspergers, attention deficit disorder, fetal alcohol syndrome, to being on the autism spectrum. Many of them are dis-regulated to the point where they need regular intervention before education can sink in. That’s why I’m interested in pattern-repetitive activities like gardening and working with dirt, which brings in the sensory processing element. I’ve been working in the shop for about seven years now, and I’ve seen dis-regulated kids who can’t focus on anything come in, sit down, and sand for 45 minutes. It’s amazing. They’re engaged with something that’s hands-on and meaningful and meditative, and I can see the layers of their stresses from home and life peel away. I have already seen how engaged many of the kids, especially the young ones, are in the new greenhouse. Dirt and worms and bees and flowers – they go crazy for that stuff. That’s exactly what we want. We want to trick them into providing themselves with their own therapy.
The long-term vision I pitched to Fluor is to reclaim the land, get rid of the grass, get a herbaceous understory going, and create a permaculture-style village that kids can access on a regular basis. The idea of a place where they can go and commune with nature for therapeutic purposes is very appealing. And the greenhouse is the foundational component that makes everything else possible. We have a lot of wildlife pressure on campus, so having a secure place to start seedlings is a tremendous help. In the next phase, we’ll be working on an outdoor classroom – it’s already been designed and will be attached to the greenhouse. There are also plans for an underground cistern as part of a water capture system.
Our partners at Fluor are committed for the long term. They’ve already put in $35,000 in greenhouse materials, plus over 2,000 hours of volunteer design time. That’s an enormous amount of investment and engagement. During the greenhouse construction phase, we had over a hundred volunteers give up their Fridays and Saturdays to come and build. The VP of Fluor Canada swung by one day and told me that it had been a great project for them for boosting company morale through the economic downturn. This project seems to resonate with everyone who’s come onboard. Again, the power of community building on display.
How has permaculture changed my life? As an ideology it clicks with me because of that strong community connection, because of the built-in resilience that connection encourages, and the fact that it strives towards what its name suggests: Permanent culture. There’s the push to take care of the humans, to take care of the systems that support us. That’s the thing that makes perfect sense to me, because I see that potential for it to change the lives of the kids I work with everyday. It doesn’t get any more powerful than that.
– Vaden Somers