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An Unexpected Gift in an Unexpected Season

The flowers spill out of the trays in a riot of colour: pink, purple, orange, yellow. They are sunshine in a box. What makes them even more beautiful is that they are an unexpected gift, grown in an unexpected season.

The seeds of this story were planted early this winter as part of a new program at Mennonite Educational Institute (MEI). The Agriculture Program is an initiative of MEI Elementary, Middle, and Secondary schools and is made possible through a grant from the Abbotsford Community Foundation. It is designed to bring land in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) back into production.

“MEI has 19 acres of land in Abbotsford that is in the ALR,” teacher Gary Funk explains. “It seemed like a perfect opportunity to get students outside and grow some food.”

Some of the gardens that are part of MEI’s Agriculture program

Gary teaches geography and history and was primarily motivated by a desire to get his students out in nature. As an outdoor enthusiast, he knows the positive impact that being outside can have on both mental and physical health, and this was what he hoped his students would experience. Teaching students about food production, sustainable growing practices, and food security was a great way to achieve this goal.

This small seed of an idea took hold and grew to become much larger than Gary expected. The end result is a 2000 square foot greenhouse and nearly a third of an acre of land that is now producing flowers and food – most of the food intended to benefit the foodbank.

The greenhouse interior

Students and volunteers had begun preparing floral hanging baskets and bedding plants to be sold as a fundraiser with the funds intended to support a summer student who would work on the project over the summer. Then COVID stormed in and brought all of that to a halt. Suddenly Gary’s workforce was decimated as students and teachers were required to stay home. Staff had to adapt quickly. Kalina Hein, who represents the program at the Middle School, spent a lot of time researching how they would manage what had been started.

“We managed to do the hanging basket fundraiser online but the bedding plants weren’t ready to go, so we couldn’t sell those at the same time,” Gary says.

The garden is both practical and beautiful

Those plants were ready a few weeks later but a second online fundraiser didn’t seem viable, so they had to come up with a new idea to give the plants a home. Marci Dirks is an administrative assistant at MEI secondary school and one of Gary’s volunteers. Her son, Matt, works for Communitas Supportive Care Society and so she suggested that perhaps the flowers could benefit the group homes supported by the organization.

Flats of flowers were delivered to Communitas where managers from several homes came to pick them up and plant them in their gardens. One of those managers was Dan Penner, pictured at top. He says the flowers were a beautiful addition to their garden.

“It was wonderful to see MEI put the unused flowers to good use by brightening the day and the gardens of others,” he says. “We planted the flowers in our large flower bed, facing the front of the house, so that the individuals in our home would be able to easily see them when looking out the window.”

The bedding plants in the garden of the home where Dan is manager

Seven Communitas homes benefited from the MEI donation.

Garry says the Agricultural Program will continue despite the challenges presented by the pandemic and hopefully in the future, the students will be able to return to their hands-on, outdoor education. In the meantime, Gary is glad that Communitas was able to benefit from this unexpected turn of events.

“We’re really glad that the plants found a good home,” he says.

Learn more about MEI’s Agriculture Program.

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