Seeds of recovery planted on Alberta farm

Taanis Ryan never knew her biological parents. In a group home at 11 years old, she got in trouble with the law, and biker gangs, by her teens.

“I was thrown out of a two-storey window and collapsed two discs in my back.” A six-month hospital stay later, heading back to the Calgary streets, she was an addict in waiting.

“They gave me morphine and Demerol but when I left, they gave me these weaker pills. I knew within hours they weren’t enough. A street friend showed me how to shoot up and a month later I had HIV.” She began selling herself, and had her first of four children at the age of 15.

For the rest of her life – minus the last 18 months – Ryan has been in detox, and back on the streets, over 300 times. That is until February 2012, when at 43 years old, she entered Hope Mission’s Wellspring Recovery Community, an addiction recovery program for women. This year, Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF) provided a $20,000 Community Grant to support the Wellspring Greenhouse program.

And according to Craig Stumpf-Allen, the director of grants and community engagement for ECF, the huge impact the program has on its participants was part of the appeal. “We heard many powerful testimonials from those involved – the garden is a peaceful, centering place that hugely benefits those in addictions recovery,” he says.

“Gardening is like the process of recovery,” Snaterse said. “You start with something small, and by removing weeds, and things that could hinder or suffocate growth, you bloom. It’s hard work, and labour intensive, but through that you get this amazing harvest. Then you take it home and share it with others.”

“Gardening is like the process of recovery,” Snaterse said. “You start with something small, and by removing weeds, and things that could hinder or suffocate growth, you bloom. It’s hard work, and labour intensive, but through that you get this amazing harvest. Then you take it home and share it with others.”

Part of the program includes weekly trips to 140 acres of farmland, a few minutes east of Wetaskiwin, where a vast garden awaits. They seed and care for all kinds of herbs and vegetables, then take their harvest back to the city for a feast. Since 2009, Hope Mission has used this land to help change nearly 200 women’s lives, though Ryan admits she entered with ulterior motives.

“I had no intentions of getting clean. I was only in there because it was winter, I had a warrant out for my arrest, and I was in bad shape physically. They told me it was a year-long program, so my plan was to go in, get housing for winter and then off I go.”

There she met Alison Snaterse, a kindly eyed case manager who started at Hope Mission when the Wellspring program began.

“Gardening is like the process of recovery,” Snaterse said. “You start with something small, and by removing weeds, and things that could hinder or suffocate growth, you bloom. It’s hard work, and labour intensive, but through that you get this amazing harvest. Then you take it home and share it with others.”

Ryan hadn’t been out of the city in years, so when she first set foot on the soil, she wasn’t a green thumb. “They didn’t put pictures on the herbs to show what they looked like, so I dug up all the herbs and kept the weeds. I was amazed at how quickly my ‘herbs’ were growing, but they all looked the same.”

Things are growing fast all around the Wellspring Community. “We now have a greenhouse we can use year-round,” said Snaterse. “And there’s a horse arena, for the Horses of Hope program, where we take horses that have been abused, and we build relationships between them and the women. It’s amazing to see these relationships, between a horse that didn’t trust and a person who didn’t trust, build and grow into something strong.”

Ryan connected with the horses immediately. “It was a transition from city to country, loud to quiet. So I’d have conversations with the horses. I’d say ‘Buddy, I know you don’t want to be here either, you just want to run free’. And they took a picture of me talking to this horse, and used it in this pamphlet down at Hope Mission. Only I didn’t know they took it, so everyone starts calling me the horse whisperer and I’m not getting it. Then they showed it to me. I was still in early recovery, still looking unhealthy, but I was smiling. That’s something I never thought I’d do again.”

Not only did Wellspring help save Ryan’s life, it gave her a new one. “I’ve lived more in the last year than I did in the previous 25,” she says. Fully clean, she now works at Hope Mission’s intake program, which is the second greatest gift Wellspring has given her.

“I have real family in my life for the first time. I met my grandson, my daughter is moving here. And I have friends – not street friends, actual friends! I never had that before.”