The healing power of community gardens
MICHELLE Parry had started drinking so much she would fall over. She was at the lowest emotional point of her life following the news her unborn child had Down syndrome and the subsequent termination of the pregnancy.
In 2013, Michelle, then aged 38, moved from Hervey Bay in Queensland to the Sunshine Coast to be with her partner. They had met later in life and, soon after the move, they decided to have a child.
In preparation for the pregnancy, Michelle stopped taking her anti-depressants. These factors, combined with the heart-breaking decision she made following her baby's diagnosis, led to intense feelings of emotional, physical and social isolation.
At her lowest point, Michelle started cutting herself and drinking in an attempt to stop the mental health issues she had battled since her teenage years.
"I've got a chronic history of anxiety and depression and I get very overwhelmed, I get socially anxious and start to go into my own world, which makes me depressed. It's really important for me to interact with people, and to also have a purpose," she said.
Michelle knew she needed to make social connections. However, it was with apprehension that she walked through the doors of the Yandina Community Gardens for the first time to attend a workshop. She felt uncomfortable, and did not want to be in a room with strangers. Fast-forward three years and Michelle, 41, is now the president of the non-profit organisation. She credits the garden with being a lifeline that saved her from her downward emotional spiral.
"Sometimes it was a matter of coming in here to the gardens, even if I found it really hard to be around people, just to get out of the house," Michelle said.
"It's been somewhere to belong but it's also healing in that it's outdoors, it's growing things, but more than anything it's the people, it's that sense of community. We're doing something valuable here. We're teaching people to grow their own food, we're teaching people how to be healthy, we're teaching people to be connected and that so sits with who I am."
Michelle now spends about 35 hours a week, unpaid, on garden and administration duties. She is happiest when she sees native bees buzzing around the sunflowers of the permaculture-based garden that has sprung from unused basketball and tennis courts.
"The bees are a great reflection in some ways of the people," she said.
"The bees come here because it's such a wonderful place. It's their haven.
"In terms of what we do here, our education programs are so valuable. We're reaching out all the time, teaching them how to care for the earth, in terms of growing foods organically, through permaculture, and we're reaching out to care for other people.
"The people who are attracted to being here are giving their time. Permaculture is about caring for earth, caring for people and sharing the surplus."
Michelle said one of the biggest lessons to be learned in the gardens was accepting difference. A range of people, some marginalised, walk through the garden gates weekly as volunteers or to enjoy the peaceful surrounds. From pensioners to people with disabilities and those on work-for-the-dole, everyone in the garden has to learn to co-operate.
It is a sentiment echoed by Australian City Farms and Community Gardens Network representative Russ Grayson. He has been involved in community gardens for three decades, as a volunteer and during his career in councils.
"Socially, the sociability is there but it comes mostly through co-operation," he said.
"People go through that initial phase of getting to know someone and when they get to know each other it becomes a lot easier."
He recalled a City of Sydney council decision to support a community garden near a social housing estate.
It was a place people could easily walk to and stay there, and the outing cost them nothing.
"The social yield out of that was greater than the food yield," Mr Grayson said.
"For neighbourhoods too, you have more people out and about and there is more chance for passive surveillance."
He also said there was no better reflection of a city or town's demographic than in a community garden.