West Saanich farm for homeless in rough condition

Victoria.Times.Colonist

Victoria.Times.Colonist

Fundraising a top priority; when programs will start still unknown

By Judith Lavoie, Times Colonist,  August 15, 2009

Richard Leblanc executive director of Creating Homefulness Society, and dog Buddha walk through Woodwynn Farm. Photograph by: Photos by Darren Stone, Times Colonist, Times Colonist

Richard Leblanc executive director of Creating Homefulness Society, and dog Buddha walk through Woodwynn Farm. Photograph by: Photos by Darren Stone, Times Colonist, Times Colonist

There’s a sprawling piece of Vancouver Island-style heaven at the corner of Mount Newton Cross and West Saanich roads.

Rolling fields are fringed with oaks and evergreens on a property that features views of Saanich Inlet, a hedged driveway with imposing maples standing guard and massive, historic barns.

But a closeup look at 78-hectare Woodwynn Farm offers an alternate picture, one of peeling paint, rotting support beams, acres of killer blackberry bushes threatening to engulf some of the 16 buildings, barbed wire and rusting farm machinery.

“People can’t believe how bad a condition the farm is in and I tell them it will never be this bad again,” says Richard Leblanc, executive director of the Creating Homefulness Society.

The group took possession of the landmark property June 1 to turn it into a therapeutic community for homeless people.

Some buildings were filled to the ceiling with garbage, while others had exposed wiring and don’t even ask about the state of the farm bathroom.

A team of 30 to 60 volunteers is working to change all that, turning up every Saturday to clear blackberries, paint, roll barbed wire and collect piles of metal garbage.

“It’s pretty hard work, but people really want to come and help,” said volunteer co-ordinator Lisa Grant.

They finish the day scratched and bleeding from blackberry bushes and still ask to come back the next week, Leblanc said.

Already, the results are remarkable, with two buildings painted in shades of butter and white, the farm’s signature burgundy doors, and the cathedral-like hayloft looking as if it’s ready for a barn dance.

“Sometimes it’s overwhelming,” Leblanc said, as his dog Buddha danced around him. “You fall asleep out of exhaustion. My dog and I are in much better shape than we were June 1.”

The Creating Homefulness Society is believed to have paid a little under $5 million for the farm and although Leblanc is reluctant to pinpoint figures, there’s a rough pricetag of $1 million on fixing it up.

Fundraising is clearly a priority.

The society has charitable status and three volunteers are writing grant proposals, targeting potential donors.

Leblanc, a co-op student and a temporary odd-job man are the only paid staff.

On top of the fix-up, program costs are likely to be about $350,000 annually, and Leblanc is no longer guessing when the therapeutic programs — ranging from bee-keeping to working in the planned Bull Pen Cafe and Smoothie Bar — will be up and running.

There is intense interest from people who want to turn their life around, said Leblanc, who hopes to start with about a dozen participants and slowly increase to 96 people.

However, a nagging uncertainty is where participants will live.

Despite copious space on the farm, Central Saanich council decided early in the process that clients could not live on site.

“We are exploring four or five different housing options, but we’re not at the stage where we can report progress,” Leblanc said.

Housing needs to be close to the farm because participants will be working and eating on site.

“Our whole goal is to make it the polar opposite of street life. Here you have stunningly beautiful nature and your hands in the soil,” Leblanc said.

It might even be possible to eat a 100-metre diet, with organic produce grown on the farm and local meat and fish, he said.

“For a homeless person, everything that goes into their bodies is the worst of the worst. Drugs, alcohol, junk food, soup kitchen food. We are looking for the polar opposites.”

Although the farm is not open to the public, it’s already receiving requests from community groups.

Yesterday, the landscape was dotted with about 30 artists from Alfrescoes Painters of Victoria.

“It is just a lovely spot,” said artist Ron Wilson.

“Look at that 100-year-old building and the old truck. I hope they don’t clean it up too much.”

Beside the 19th century upper barn, Tina Barnes is preparing to teach horse-whispering to the public before it becomes part of the therapy program.

Five horses are already in place, chosen from 35 that were offered to the program free-of-charge.

“I teach mare-speak and I will also be doing behaviour modification for horses having difficulties,” Barnes said.

jlavoie@tc.canwest.com

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