Michael Wallace was living on the streets of Victoria and had stopped in at a neighbourhood soup kitchen when he overheard volunteers talk about wanting to grow their own food to help feed patrons.
“I said to myself, ‘Dear God, if I ever get a chance, I will help them,’ ” he recalled. “They were a lifeline, and I knew I’d want to give back some day.”
Years have passed, but Wallace got his opportunity this past week as he and a few helpers put shovels in the ground at what will be a community garden for the Rainbow Kitchen in Esquimalt.
“Gather around guys, we’ll dig up this bed,” said Wallace, 58. His partner in the project, volunteer John McLean, hauled over rosemary plants from his own garden. Lawrence Wawia, an old friend from his street days, offered an Ojibway blessing.
Inside Esquimalt United Church, where the soup kitchen operates five days a week, patrons offered thumbs-up through the windows. The entirely volunteer-run organization serves as many as 150 meals a day — and this was a busy one.
The line for pasta puttanesca, salad and cookies stretched to the door. Tables were packed shoulder to shoulder with street youth, struggling seniors, new immigrants and people with disabilities. Gospel singer Louise Rose led a sing-along at the piano while the chatter sounded like a boisterous family gathering.
“We put together a wedding banquet of food every day with all volunteers,” said kitchen co-ordinator Sally Challenger, surrounded by donated crates of vegetables, canned goods and packed freezers.
“Everything is donated, so the cooks have to be creative. I’ll say: ‘I have hamburger today,’ and they’ll have to go with it,” said Challenger, who took up the volunteer position last July. “I’ve found a passion and a purpose making a difference in other people’s lives. We’re not just nurturing tummies here, we’re nurturing souls. We’re a family here.”
She said Wallace’s eyes lit up at discussion of a garden project last fall. “The space is a patch of weeds really. But he dreams big and his background is farming,” she said.
Wallace was working as an agricultural contractor when his life was turned upside-down in 2002.
“My son was in a terrible car accident,” he said. The teen survived but he was in and out of surgery and needed constant care. Wallace, a self-employed single father of two boys, lost months of work, a job and housing fell through, and his finances eventually collapsed. His sons went to live with friends and he ended up homeless.
“I couch-surfed, slept in cars, abandoned buildings, under the stars and on the streets,” he said. When a downtown security guard urinated on him one night, he decided to camp at Beaver Lake. Things got better for a while and Wallace lived with his son. He now lives in an 85-square-foot shack in the Highlands with no running water and just the electricity generated by a single solar panel.
“I go to the library once a week to do email,” he said. He also makes it to the Rainbow Kitchen and will do so every day while he works on the garden with McLean.
The plan is to build a few small beds to grow rapidly maturing vegetables and herbs. The garden will also be used as a teaching tool and community-building space for the patrons.
“We believe it will create a source of pride and that the act of gardening is healing,” said McLean, who volunteers two days a week at the Rainbow Kitchen and works for Thrifty Foods.
The team hopes the modest garden project will grow into relationships with neighbours and other local community gardens.
For more information and to learn how to donate time, supplies or cash to the Rainbow Kitchen, go to rainbowkitchen.ca.