How a vegetable garden is helping the disadvantaged in downtown St. John's

Charles Noseworthy has a smile that's hard to forget, and it may shine brightest when he looks at a row of green peas — big ones — on a plant that he's helped grow.

They face life's biggest struggles, but find solace in the soil outside the Gathering Place

Charles Noseworthy, 35, has been tending to a garden behind the Gathering Place in St. John's. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Charles Noseworthy has a smile that's hard to forget, and it may shine brightest when he looks at a row of peas — big ones — that he's helped grow.

"They're huge, look! Look at the leaves!" Noseworthy says on a hot August day, as he picks out weeds from a vegetable garden. 

"It is relaxing. It's giving me a sense of peace from my every day thing."

The Gathering Place garden sits behind the street-level outreach building in downtown St. John's.

Colourful vegetables in neat rows of wooden boxes are a stark contrast to what's happening inside — throngs of people of all ages, battling mental illness, some gripped with addiction — and the majority facing both.

The seeds, wooden boxes and building materials were all donated or provided at a discounted price from businesses in the community. 

Guests earn minimum wage

Noseworthy, 35, is one of a small group of guests (as they're called at the Gathering Place) who regularly tend to the garden, picking out weeds and watering plants.

There is no schedule. No hard commitment. Organizers say it just wouldn't work that way.

The enterprise program allows people like Noseworthy to earn minimum wage from creating something themselves. But the program's aim is to give much more than that. 

I would be in a bad spot ... Getting into trouble.- Charles Noseworthy

"It feels really good. It gives me a sense of confidence that my stuff is growing and all the awesome work I've done in the past few months," Noseworthy said.

"Basically if I get my own spot, I'll know how to garden."

Noseworthy beams with pride as he talks about the vegetables being used in the kitchen to feed other guests.

He can't quite find the words when asked where he'd be without the Gathering Place, a reliable centre where he gets a meal, meets friends, and uses the public computers.

"I would be in a bad spot ... Getting into trouble."

Mike O'Dea, social enterprise co-ordinator at the Gathering Place, shows Theresa, a guest who uses the centre, how to water the sunflowers. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Mike O'Dea, the centre's social enterprise co-ordinator, started the garden.

He's looked on as guests grew from dismissing the garden, to watching it, to working on it. 

"They are living with challenges far behind what we can even comprehend," O'Dea said.

Seeing something through from beginning to end — then reaping the reward — is not something that happens often.

"When you see people coming from the street or substandard housing with a smile ... it's enlightening."

There are 1,400 registered guests at the Gathering Place. Between 250 and 270 meals are served six days a week. 

'Complexity of their lives'

But when the time comes for Noseworthy to make some cash and show off the fruits of his labour at a fall sale, he's nowhere to be found.

His absence is the sad reality of the lives he and others live, said director Joanne Thompson.

"It's important to understand that when people come to the Gathering Place, it really is in many cases the end of the line in terms of availability of services, programs, where you are in your life," she said.

Some of the proceeds from vegetables sold at a fall fundraiser on Oct. 28 will go towards Charles Noseworthy and others who worked on the garden. (John Pike/CBC)

"The ability to show up at a particular time is not realistic. It speaks to the complexity of their lives."

That's why the garden works —. they choose the time based on the reality of their lives, which are often fraught with instability. 

His work, however, did not go unnoticed and Noseworthy will get proceeds from the sale of the vegetables — a small amount that means so much.

About the Author

Ariana Kelland


Ariana Kelland is a reporter with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John's.