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Commentary: Community grants, gardeners and investments

COVID-19 is exposing numerous cracks in our social fabric. The future for community groups and the social service providers is full of uncertainty and precarious plans.
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COVID-19 is exposing numerous cracks in our social fabric.

The future for community groups and the social service providers is full of uncertainty and precarious plans. But, as national poet Leonard Cohen sings, "there is a crack in everything … that's how the light gets in."

The light I see? Hyper-local investing and spending our dollars within a 100-mile radius of home could be brilliant.

Ten years ago, I was working for the local community foundation and after careful consideration, the grants adjudication committee, a volunteer board, recommended that $10,000 be awarded to the local Banff Greenhouse Gardening Society. My job was to be the messenger, first seeking approval from the board of directors and subsequently talking to the president of the gardening society.

"I am happy to advise that your application for a grant of $10,000 has been approved," began my telephone conversation. 

My next question was: "Is the Gardening Society still in a position to accept $10,000 to invest in building a community greenhouse?"

This specific question was asking – do you have the leadership, determination and capacity to deliver on the project? 

I heard a long pause, a deep inhalation and an enthusiastic: "Yes." 

"Great," I said, and we chatted about logistics and process.

I closed the conversation by saying: "I am so excited for your group. This is the largest grant our organization has ever awarded, and I know gardens give great value. Congratulations. Good luck." 

Time passed and the society requested an extension beyond the original one-year deadline, confirming that they were still moving in the right direction, but had faced some challenges.

At the official ribbon cutting ceremony, a seasoned member of the group approached me, expressing gratitude.

"You know, I was so delighted when we heard the news," she said. "But also rather surprised. The idea of a community garden had been around for so many years, I had really given up hope. We had been rejected so many times, I figured we would never see this dream."

I understood why she had felt defeated. 

We continued chatting, with a back-and-forth banter of all the reasons that gardening in Banff is futile. Infertile soil; land is too expensive; or the fact elk eat everything were mentioned along with Parks Canada regulations. The long list continued: the growing season is too short; snow comes before Labour Day; late night partiers; cold nights and early frosts.

"But," she concluded, "when the foundation agreed to give us money, it was like a bright light got switched on. We looked at each other and said, 'Well, if the foundation believes in the project, we better believe in ourselves.' "

By believing in the viability of the project, the group's gardener instincts kicked in and they sharpened their hoes, considered each of the many concerns and found the best possible solutions in the local context.

With more time, more money, an abundance of positive energy and chutzpah, the seed funding resulted in a built asset valued at over $80,000.

The society leveraged hundreds of hours of sweat equity to secure a provincial grant, used salvaged construction materials, worked through issues with staff from the municipality and solicited more donations from private investors. What investor wouldn't be happy with an eight-fold growth in value?

The orange doors to Banff's first community greenhouse opened in May 2011, a dream became reality. Today, community gardens are considered essential services. Yes, our communities have cracks growing.

But, as Cohen says, "that's how the light gets in."

Once we get past COVID-19, let's look for bright lights, believe in ourselves and make investments within 100 miles of home. Community groups can offer maximum returns that benefit us all.

Over the years, Lorraine Widmer-Carson has worked for Parks Canada, the Whyte Museum, Friends of Banff National Park, the Banff Centre for Arts and creativity, and retired from executive director of the Banff Canmore Community Foundation in 2017. She and her family (including two remarkable granddaughters) celebrated 40 years of owning and operating Ticino Restaurant in 2019. This year she is initiating the Gratitude Project. Follow her by signing up at lwcbanff.ca. 



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