Healthy Living in the North

Planting seeds, fighting stigma, and growing community: Healthy Minds Community Garden

Northern Health’s IMAGINE Community Grants provide funding to a variety of groups with projects that make northern communities healthier. Our hope is that these innovative projects inspire healthy community actions where you live! Check out the story below and read more IMAGINE Community Grant stories.


Fox in a community garden

How can a community garden reduce stigma around mental health concerns? The Healthy Minds Community Garden in Fort St. James accomplished just that – promoting social connections and healthy lifestyles along the way!

The Healthy Minds Peer Support group in Fort St. James offers a safe and confidential venue for those impacted by mental and emotional health issues. The group aims to break isolation, promote healthy lifestyles, support integration into the community, and reduce stigma around mental health concerns. Healthy Minds Peer Support also organizes public awareness campaigns with speakers from the RCMP and local mental health practitioners. They meet every Monday at 7:00 p.m. at the Stuart Lake Hospital and welcome everyone to join them.

At first glance, one might ask how a community garden fits into this vision. For facilitators and Mental Health & Addictions Advisory Committee members Greg Kovacs and Sandi Taylor, there are so many worthwhile connections between a community garden and mental wellness. They highlighted these when they first proposed this project to the IMAGINE Community Grant program:

A healthy diet of fruits and vegetables and physical activity can reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, and mental health problems. We also know working with the soil, planting, and harvesting is therapeutic and conducive to those on their road to recovery and healthy living principles. Community gardens have proven successful in numerous communities worldwide in providing valuable educational tools and skills acquisition for those most in need.

For Kovacs and Taylor, there was a crucial social piece to this project, too:

Isolated mental health clients gain socialization skills, confidence, and practical life-affirming experience. [The garden] is a great way to keep fit, socialize, and an excellent form of therapeutic exercise for participants.

After a successful IMAGINE Community Grant application in 2015, Kovacs, Taylor, and the rest of the Healthy Minds Peer Support group got to work.

Empty lot

A look at the garden space before the Healthy Minds Community Garden took shape. Construction involved over 50 volunteers and over 1,500 volunteer hours.

How did the project go? Kovacs and Taylor provided an inspiring update:

This project exceeded expectations on many levels. The construction of the garden space involved over 50 volunteers, from children to seniors across all socioeconomic and racial divides. Together, we logged over 1,500 volunteer hours. This garden has provided socialization opportunities [and] improved the mental and physical health of many community members. Through these interactions, awareness of mental health, physical health, and environmental health has been raised.

Two classes from David Hoy Elementary School helped in the construction and planting of garden beds. The grade 9 woodworking class from the high school built two flower garden beds for us. We also had involvement from adult mental health service users. Friendships were made, and a sense of community bonding was achieved. We were able to produce many pounds of fresh, organic vegetables – from lettuce to corn and peppers. Also, with seven local newspaper articles on the garden project, mental health and community gardening has been highlighted, and these topics have become common conversations around all community events. Raising awareness of mental health is the first step in reducing, and eventually eliminating stigma around it.

Community garden

A look at the completed garden space reveals the transformation that took place. For the project coordinators, a similar transformation occurred in the lives of those involved in the garden as the “unifying space” helped them to develop social connections.

One of the most important goals of sharing projects supported by IMAGINE Community Grants is the opportunity to share the lessons learned from different projects. Everyone who has been involved in a big project – whether it’s a personal home renovation, organizing a local sporting event, or getting a project off of the ground in a community – knows that it’s not always rainbows and sunshine! With the benefit of hindsight, Kovacs and Taylor shared what they learned:

All in all, it has been a very positive experience. There were, however, some challenges. It was difficult to get people involved in the actual construction. A lot of skilled labour was required, and in short supply … Being the project lead, it was difficult at times to gauge the skill level of volunteers … Volunteers often require close supervision. It is important to allow people some freedom, while discerning what projects they can succeed at. We could have used some more help with the administrative duties … If we undertook this type of project in the future, we would not make funding applications, or commitments, until we had people committed to certain duties.

The takeaway for Kovacs and Taylor, though?

The successes greatly exceeded the challenges. We have been approached by many strangers complimenting the work our group is doing. The word is out, and most of our beds are already reserved for the 2016 planting season. This garden is poised to become a new standard in community gardening. With a focus on aesthetics, as opposed to just food production, our garden has become a popular lunch, and socialization place for local workers and all community members. There is a lot of pride in this community garden. It is known as a very tranquil and serene sanctuary, overlooking the beautiful Stuart Lake. Seeing the faces of people who see the garden for the first time—priceless! … Be prepared to get projects off the ground with a few dedicated and imaginative people, and once things begin to take shape, others will join.

Two people paint a sign.

Volunteers put the finishing touches on the sign welcoming gardeners, guests, and visitors to the Healthy Minds Community Garden in Fort St. James.

The impact of the Healthy Minds Community Garden and the Healthy Minds Peer Support group really comes to light when you ask Kovacs and Taylor for one thing that they want to share about the project:

It is extremely difficult to list only one, as there are so many! … The greatest benefit, among many, is that of community bonding, or socialization. People that would not normally mix are working, laughing, and talking with each other. With so many phenomena dividing people in society today, the garden is a unifying space. One participant in particular, who wishes to remain anonymous, has been suffering from a life-threatening illness and has been isolating for over a year. We managed to get her out to the garden one day, and that resulted in her riding a bicycle to the garden every weekend to help and mostly just to socialize. She has reserved a garden bed for 2016. Largely as a result of stigma, many people experiencing mental health issues suffer in silence. Our objective is to reach as many of these people as possible, and the Healthy Minds Community Garden is accomplishing this. We also have to mention that the health benefits of growing and eating whole foods has not been lost on those participating in the garden.

Clearly unable to contain their excitement, pride, and desire to share more about the community garden, Kovacs and Taylor’s “one thing” continues to a list of community partners:

The involvement of the school kids, and the excitement in their eyes when they see what they have grown, is priceless. We believe that many of those kids will continue to garden and eat healthy throughout their lives. We also have to mention that the school this year is going to plant three beds as a result of the success of the program.

We have also reserved a bed for the Key Resource Centre in Fort St. James, and two beds are reserved for a local women’s wellness group. So far, we have two beds reserved for seniors as well. We have built two extra height beds for people with mobility issues. The entire garden is wheelchair accessible. We strongly believe that this garden will continue to grow and be of great benefit to all in this small community.

This project is, beyond any reasonable doubt, a resounding success.

Garden bed

Growing so much more than just healthy, local food, the community garden has become first and foremost a health-promoting gathering space where people can connect.

Do you have ideas to promote social connections, reduce stigma, boost healthy eating, and make your community healthier? Start gathering your team and brainstorming your project – the next round of IMAGINE Community Grants will start September 19, 2016.


IMAGINE Community Grants provide funding to community organizations, service agencies, First Nations bands and organizations, schools, municipalities, regional districts, not-for-profits, and other partners with projects that make northern communities healthier. We are looking for applications that will support our efforts to prevent chronic disease and injury, and improve overall well-being in our communities. The next call out for IMAGINE Community Grants will be September 19, 2016.

Vince Terstappen

About Vince Terstappen

Vince Terstappen is a Project Assistant with the health promotions team at Northern Health. He has an undergraduate and graduate degree in the area of community health and is passionate about upstream population health issues. Born and raised in Calgary, Vince lived, studied, and worked in Saskatoon, Victoria, and Vancouver before moving to Vanderhoof in 2012. When not cooking or baking, he enjoys speedskating, gardening, playing soccer, attending local community events, and Skyping with his old community health classmates who are scattered across the world. Vince works with Northern Health program areas to share healthy living stories and tips through the blog and moderates all comments for the Northern Health Matters blog.

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Walking for life

Digital painting of man in coffee shop.

To accompany his blog post about HIV and the AIDS Walk for Life, Andrew Burton created this original piece entitled “Café Scene”.

J is sitting quietly in the corner by the front door of the café. There are several people scattered around the room chatting, drinking coffee, eating nachos or oversized muffins. J keeps to himself. J has a cold. He warns me of it when I sit down. “I used to get really scared,” he says, “every time I got sick.” He stirs his coffee and smiles:

I would wonder, is this the one? Is this just a cold or some kind of rare pneumonia? Being HIV positive, you can get vigilant looking for the infection that could take you out. I was diagnosed in 1995. Back then, everybody thought it was a death sentence. I was scared at first, then angry, but it turned out I was one of the lucky ones. I got on medication early, stuck to it and got suppressed. So, it’s all good, right?

Today, at 50, J is part of some positive statistics. An increasing number of people living with HIV are living longer, healthier lives. The BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS estimates that there are 273 people in northern B.C. living with HIV and 123 of them are over 50 years old. About 92 of those are on antiretroviral therapy (ART) medication and 66 are suppressed – that is, the virus is undetectable in their blood.

Back in the café, J looks around the room:

It was hard to stick with the meds at first. The side effects were a problem and it’s tough staying on track when you don’t feel sick or when the side effects are what are making you feel sick. They were harsh in the early days. They’re so much better now.

The key to a long and healthy life for people living with HIV is to be tested and diagnosed early, before their immune system is seriously compromised, then to begin treatment and keep on track with it. Over time, the medications have improved. Current regimens require fewer pills, have fewer side effects, and less toxicity. “I used to wonder how people would react if they knew,” J says,

Back then there was still a lot of stigma … not so much anymore. People ask how I got infected. I don’t mind that so much. It’s none of their business, really, but at least they are up front about asking. What really gets to me are the ones who just make assumptions … usually negatives.

People living with HIV still deal with stigma. People fear the disease and jump to conclusions about people who have it. The truth is everyone is at risk for HIV. Stand up and show your support. Join the AIDS Walk in your community this September – there are walks happening around the province from September 12-20.

In Prince George, where I live, September 16, 2015, is the Scotiabank Positive Living North AIDS Walk for Life at the Prince George Civic Centre. Registration is at 11:30 with the walk going from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. More information is available from AIDS Walk For Life.

Andrew Burton

About Andrew Burton

Andrew is a Community Integration Systems Navigator for Northern Health’s HIV and Hepatitis C Care team and works to support healthy living practices in communities across northern B.C. Andrew is developing positive activity and diet practices for two reasons: to deal with his own health concerns, and to “walk the talk” of promoting healthy living. Building on his training and experience in creative arts therapy, Andrew founded and runs the Street Spirits Theatre program promoting social responsibility among young people. This work has been recognized nationally and internationally as a leading method of social change.

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The Stigma Stompers

Three runners

The Stigma Stompers just finished their half marathon in Vancouver. Along the way, they discovered that running had a really positive impact on their mental wellness.

Yesterday, Rai wrote about running to give her mind a little breathing space. Here’s my story of our road to running a half marathon:

It all began with the motivation to improve our physical wellness. What we found, though, was a huge improvement on our mental health as well!

As full-time working mothers with young children at home, time to enjoy extracurricular activities is limited so we started using our lunch hours and hiking up Terrace Mountain behind our office building. We would set out, huffing and puffing, until we reached the half-hour mark, then turn around.

Gradually, we felt stronger and got a little bit further each week. Then we started running parts of the trail. From this achievement, we somehow made the leap to making the decision to train for a half marathon, choosing the BMO race in Vancouver on May 3rd.

Through the experience of training to reach our goal, we have done some research on not only good running form and technique, but also on the reasons why people actually run. It’s not always fun waking up early, running in all types of weather conditions (we do live in the north, after all!), or running during lunch hours and spending the afternoon at work feeling sweaty. With our eyes on the goal of running 21 km in May, we initially had to force ourselves to run longer and longer distances, but with time, we actually started to look forward to our training runs. The sense of accomplishment, camaraderie, and support we both feel from this endeavour is incredibly motivating, not to mention the fact that our community has really come together to support us!

We chose to run the BMO half marathon in support of the Canadian Mental Health Association and have named ourselves the “Stigma Stompers.” Two members of the community heard about us and also joined our team, and yet another community member is volunteering her time to manage our Facebook page and coordinate our fundraising efforts.

The positive effects this training has had on our stress levels and mental alertness throughout the day have (so far) surpassed any of the physical ailments along the way!

What are you waiting for?

Melanie Abbott

About Melanie Abbott

Melanie is a social worker, currently working as a mental health and addictions clinician in Terrace. She started out her social work career in the north in Prince Rupert with the Ministry of Children and Family Development before moving to the Okanagan where she worked for a non-profit organization supporting families and children. Melanie has also done international volunteer work and is a board member for Some Day Is Now International, supporting women and children in South Sudan. When she is not working or training for a half-marathon, Melanie is spending time with her husband and two young children, 1 and 3.

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Devote time and energy to mental wellness

Graphic reading: How do you really feel?

Like physical wellness, it is important to devote time and energy to developing your mental wellness. What can you do to foster mental wellness each and every day?

For me, one of the exciting things I’ve seen when we’re talking about health is the increased attention on wellness and protective factors, instead of solely on disease and symptoms.

It’s no surprise that this extends to the field of mental health and mental wellness.

This year, for Mental Health Week (May 4-10, 2015), I would encourage you to give some thought to the things that keep you healthy mentally. Similar to physical wellness being more than the absence of disease, mental wellness is a state of well-being. What it looks like for you might be different than what it looks like for me, but the important part is that we dedicate time and energy to keeping ourselves well.

I’ve gotten better at recognizing when I am not doing enough to support my wellness: I am quicker to become irritated, I start to notice some physical symptoms from stress, and I am generally not a whole lot of fun to be around. These are indications for me that it might be time to take some affirmative action. Personally, I know that I sometimes need to give myself some extra time on the drive home to process after a difficult day of work. I also need to maintain my healthy sleep habits. Regular exercise is also important for my mental wellness.

Another similarity between mental and physical wellness relates to coping tools or what may be referred to as “resiliency factors.” If we have a large range of these tools, even if we do become unwell, we may be sick for less time or not get as sick as we otherwise would. Visit the Canadian Mental Health Association for a self-assessment and some tips on resilience.

Another way that we can enhance our mental wellness is by opening the dialogue about mental health. By having a week to increase attention on mental health, we can address one of the most pervasive things that impedes mental wellness: stigma. Negative attitudes, beliefs, and actions spread misinformation and fear about mental health issues.

The bottom line is that mental illness may affect any one of us over the course of our lives, so let’s do what we can to support one another and help increase the overall level of knowledge and inclusiveness in our home, work, and social environments. To learn more about reducing stigma, visit the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Nick Rempel

About Nick Rempel

Nick Rempel is the clinical educator for Mental Health and Addictions, northwest B.C. Nick has lived in northern B.C. his entire life and received his education from the University of Northern BC with a degree in nursing. He enjoys playing music, going to the gym, and watching movies in his spare time.

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