Among the flourishing collard greens, cabbage and eggplants is where Teresa Conyers feels most at peace.
Peace was once an elusive concept to the 50-year-old recovering drug addict who once slept in abandoned warehouses. Her days revolved around scheming to get her next high.
“My life was a living hell. I used to sell my body. I got beat up in the streets. I didn’t know where my next meal was coming from, but I just couldn’t stop,” she said.
Conyers is one of 300 transitioning homeless clients who live at Camillus House’s new state-of-the-art facility at 1603 NW Seventh Ave. She lives in a dormitory-style room with five other women. Her days consist of a variety of meetings including therapy and life skills.
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The meetings help, Conyers said.
But it is an unlikely place in the middle of the sprawling campus where Conyers and other recovering homeless find a different kind of healing — some call it spiritual.
Tucked behind the dining hall on an undeveloped parcel of land sits rows of cinder blocks bursting with kale, collard greens, peppers and different types of herbs. The 1-year-old garden is run by clients like Conyers who volunteer to plant and harvest the crops. The fresh produce is eventually served to the 500 homeless and transitioning homeless guests who visit the dining hall daily.
The garden volunteers at Camillus House learn about nutrition and agriculture and develop work skills.
“To me it’s not just a garden. It gives me hope that I can make it another day,” Conyers said.
The Camillus House garden was developed by Marvin Dunn, a psychologist and director of Roots in the City, a nonprofit organization with urban gardens in Overtown.
Dunn is a proponent of the therapeutic value of gardens. He said it has a positive impact on the physical and mental well being.
“It really helps improve the therapeutic environment. There’s something that is very calming to have plants around, particularly food,’’ he said. “Some get nostalgic remembering an earlier happier period of their life.”
Holding up a bunch of freshly cut collard green leaves to the sky, Conyers said her life is analogous to the crops she tends to.
She explains, “When you first plant the seeds and it turns into a plant, sometimes the plant struggles. The leaves turn brown and you think, ‘It’s not going to make it.’ You tend to it, you water it, you talk to it, you don’t give up on it and then one day you come out here and you see it survived. I struggled too. I survived.”
Darrick Bradford is also a survivor.
A former client of Camillus House, he now lives on his own and is a chef in the dining hall.
He takes pride in the meals he serve to the public; he never puts anything on a plate he hasn’t tasted himself. The harvests from the garden add another dimension to his cooking, he says.
“It’s the difference between cooking with freshly caught fish and buying the prepacked stuff,” the self-taught cook said. “It’s amazing to come out here and get fresh greens and salad tomatoes. People think you should feed the homeless anything. We don’t.”
Bradford said the garden volunteers who haul in plastic bags and clear buckets full of the latest pickings remind him of his journey from addiction.
“I was addicted to cocaine. When I got here in 2008 I was fresh out of jail,” he said. “You have to get involved in something that is not about you. You have to give back and pay it forward. That’s what they’re doing out here every time they work in the garden. We all get something out of it.”
On a recent sunny afternoon, Ricky McGowan hoisted a semi-filled bucket of tomatoes onto his shoulders. Dressed in a one-piece green jumpsuit, his head covered with a straw hat, McGowan stopped to take in the sight of the garden.
He once owned his own landscaping business, but his vices led to him lose his livelihood. McGowan, 47, landed on the streets. When he completes the six-month program at Camillus House, he said he’ll have a better work ethic this time around.
“When I come out here I take it all in. It’s always looking beautiful,” he said of the garden.
Conyers stooped over nearby pruning a bunch of collard greens.
“I tell people all the time, ‘If you don’t believe in God just plant something,’ ” she said. “Watch it grow. It’s a miracle.”