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Sustaining Success Farming with a Social Mission

Ella Fleming - Farm Manager

Francesca Elezovic - Training and Education Supervisor

Darrie Ganzhorn - Executive Director

March 8, 2022

For More Information:

In 2022, The Homeless Garden Project celebrates 30 years of sustained success in growing community through farming. Based on visits to over a dozen such farms with a social mission, their success may be attributed to strictly adhering to their mission: “In the soil of our urban farm and garden, people find the tools they need to build a home in the world.” Every day they strive to fulfill their vision, to create “a thriving and inclusive community, workforce, and local food system.”

Darrie Ganzhorn, Executive Director of The Homeless Garden Project since 2008, works hard to align her team so that every interaction is reinforced by their values:

  • The capacity of every individual for growth and renewal.

  • The joy that comes from growing and sharing healthy food.

  • The wellbeing created by vibrant social and natural ecosystems.

Strong, Committed Leadership

With the team and community’s help, Darrie’s accomplishments have been remarkable. Since leading the team, The Project has developed the transitional employment program and its goals, grown revenue four-fold, and has successfully completed a $3.5 million capital campaign. Darrie has primary responsibility for vision and planning, fundraising, program direction, financial management, public relations and staff support of the Project's Board of Directors.

Respectful Communication

Francesca Elezovic, Training and Education Supervisor, with a degree in psychology, explained how important restorative circles of sharing are. Restorative circles include the practice of gathering the whole farm team in a circle as equals. “The work day begins and ends with a circle of all those working at the farm. Circles are used to help show respect, listening, and value. This forum allows for self-selected leaders to rise to the occasion. Further, they allow people to make their own choices for their own lives.” She went on, “And as the trainees succeed, the team is quick to celebrate their successes - getting a job, housing, and staying sober. The program is so real and so simple. It takes effort to keep it that way.”

Balancing Compassion and Accountability

Ella Fleming, Farm Manager at the Project for three years now, reflected, “The community offers many services, but there are so many barriers people face in these complex situations, not the least of which is maintaining their mental health. We can employ a maximum of nineteen here at Natural Bridges Farm. That’s a function of our staff and the acreage. The rolling admissions approach of this farm makes consistent training a challenge. Every Monday, Mike and I meet to plan what the farm needs and then I connect with Francesca to learn what each of the trainees needs. The work is broken down into daily task lists. We use the chalkboard as a way of keeping track of it all. In all this work, I’m still learning to balance compassion with accountability. Some people that work here are living out of their cars.”

We support each other

When asked what the positives are about her job, she explained, “I am inspired by the population we work with. They are the most resilient and also the most generous people I’ve met. Only when you lose everything can you become this resilient and generous. Being able to see something through from start to finish; completing something, caring for something takes you outside yourself. I’m continually amazed to witness what the Earth can do for building up someone's confidence.”

Community Ownership

Over the years, the community has taken ownership for The Homeless Garden Project. We know what social support resources and services are available. For example, many benefit by living at a Sober Living Center. They do have their requirements: chores and required community service hours, but they provide a safe space and better company for those like-minded who want to stay clean of drugs.

Creating a space of Healing and Purpose

When asked about the emotional strain that comes with working with this population, Ella remarked, “I’ve learned that I can’t protect human beings from suffering; it’s a part of life. Yet I can help people who are on the verge of surviving or thriving. For myself, the farm has become an incredible place of healing. It’s a place to practice caring. It’s a place to see the long term as life and death are repeatedly experienced in the garden. Here on this farm I feel part of life in a bigger way.”

“As the trainees experience the farm, they often remark, ‘I am remembering who I really am. All my life, something has kept me from connecting this way. I am finding myself. When I come here, I can forget all the disrupters in my life.’ Ella continued, “I so enjoy hearing people laughing while we plant onions together. The play, the art, and the ultimate curiosity working in nature are all a part of it. We get to grow flowers and make bouquets. I used to work alone creating gardens for billionaires. Now I’m working in the people’s garden!”

In her exchange with her farm trainees, Ella emphasizes, “You planted those onions; this is yours! The soil you just touched is yours. There’s a connection. There’s been an exchange. You belong here.” She reflected, “There’s equity in that experience. The trainees gain a keener sense of self and sovereignty.”

Continuing Connection

Ella continued, “Evan, programs manager: transitional employment and social work programs, gathers the alumni on the first Sunday of every month for a “meetup”. There is always food involved as well as an activity, and planting something. The circle is used as a great way to meet and unite as equals. This “meetup” is a really important way to keep these people, “our farmily”, connected with each other and to connect with the new trainees. Getting together gives the trainees a glimpse of what life after the farm has to offer. In networking, they can find housing leads and cheaper ways to live in this expensive town. Those that come from bad communities can now be welcomed into a positive community.”

Ella summed up her answer to my question, “Why has HGP sustained over these 30 years?” by saying, “People really connect here. We provide the farm experience. A lot has to do with the community they experience here. The farm is a space for pollination that grows flowers and food; the farm is a space for people to hope. Farming is not making anything worse. It’s actually being constructive - something that you can do that’s positive.”

Sharing this Model

On March 4, Darrie generously invited community leaders in this space of farming with a social mission, to join her on a Zoom call to comment on the work of The Homeless Garden Project. While much of it is summarized in their 2020 Annual Report, she made some key points. She shared, “Experience shows that resilience and healing take root and flourish at the farm. To serve people effectively, you need to be close to them.” She invites her staff members to, “see people with two eyes - one for who they are today, the other for who they may become. Let the farm bring each person a sense of safety, beauty, and energy.”

Succeeding in Small Steps

Darrie also emphasized a clear division of accountability and responsibility: the staff and the trainee. “The farm staff is primarily responsible to provide the farming opportunity. It’s up to the individual trainee to choose their life. We act in a way that encourages individual self reliance. It’s up to the individual to act on the information and resources provided to aid them to connect with community help that is offered.” This transitional employment is designed to help people transition out of homelessness in a gradual yet realistic, step-wise way. Providing work opportunities all year round, both at the farm and the workshop, helps provide that continuity as each trainee achieves their milestones. Over the years The Homeless Garden Project has learned to include men, women and any gender orientation to help each to understand and appreciate diversity. “We promise each trainee, ‘take the project seriously and you will succeed!’ ” Darrie commented. “Choose to invest in your success by being fully engaged on the job.”


Not everyone completes the program, yet those that do are almost assured of finding stable housing and employment based on their track record. In 2020, 46 trainees started and 9 completed as graduates. Of those who did graduate, 100% found housing, 90% found jobs. Others left to move or decided they did not want to receive the COVID booster shots. Some just didn’t stick with it or found a job elsewhere. The 2500 community volunteers in 2020 made it possible. Darrie concluded, “We couldn’t have done what we do without them!”

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Author: Farmer Karl

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