A Farm to Families participant takes a close look at a beetle during one of the experiences at the A Rocha property in South Surrey. (Contributed photo)

South Surrey farm adapting hands-on program to ensure senior connections

‘There is a lot lost when you’re not able to do things face-to-face’

A hands-on effort to connect seniors in the Surrey/White Rock area with nutritious food, gardening and other experiences that bring them closer to nature while expanding their circle of support is continuing – minus the hands-on part, that is.

Sandra Dumitras, co-ordinator of the Farm to Families program at A Rocha Canada’s Brooksdale Environmental Centre in South Surrey, said a component that was added to the roster in 2017 through funds received from the United Way in the form of an Active Aging grant, is being adapted in light of restrictions imposed due to the pandemic.

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Starting in 2017, the Active Aging funds supported modifications to Farm to Families programming to include “really accessible education for seniors at different levels of ability,” Dumitras said, describing everything from tour-and-coffee sessions that were organized for those with mobility limitations, to gardening and cooking sessions for those with greater mobility.

“It’s been pretty varied, but because of Active Aging funding, we’ve been able to recruit seniors, co-ordinate transportation, have them come out for these experiences.

“We are still receiving Active Aging funding, so that’s why we wanted to continue making programming accessible in some way.”

Farm to Families began in 2009 with an aim of helping equip newcomer families with the skills to grow their own food. Over the years, partnerships with groups and organizations including the Surrey School District, DIVERSEcity and Umoja Operation Compassion Society have taken root, expanding its reach.

Dumitras, who has co-ordinated the program since 2016, described it as a “very food-centred… tactile kind of experience” that offers access to the forest, the river and the farm itself – experiences that many of the participants, young and old alike, might not otherwise have.

The impact has been “really special,” she said.

READ MORE: South Surrey’s A Rocha Canada named agriculture leader

For repeat participants in particular, “we’ve really noticed them talking more and more about feeling like they’re part of a community, a really strong sense of belonging and being known,” Dumitras said.

“These little changes of how they’re trying things out at home by themselves and they’re curious to learn more. It’s pretty remarkable seeing people’s attitude to food, and even to nature, change.”

She acknowledged the in-person connections that go hand-in-hand are “irreplaceable.”

“There is a lot lost when you’re not able to do things face-to-face,” Dumitras said. “And even experience something like food, being able to celebrate with each other and make it together, and enjoy it because you and 20 other people made something together.

“We’re doing our best to have community online. It’s just going to look very different.”

With ideas for how to adapt to the pandemic environment “gaining momentum,” Dumitras said steps underway include collecting contact information for, and identifying needs of, seniors who are interested in receiving phone or email check-ins – whether it’s to talk with someone about gardening, receive photos or videos of life at the farm, or for ideas of how to get involved with nature activities even when stuck at home.

The services are focusing on those who are accessing DIVERSEcity, Seniors Come Share or Progressive Intercultural Community Services (PICS) resources, however, “we’re also going a bit beyond that and offering to the general public if they want to sign up for check-ins and phone calls,” Dumitras said.

The need for such services is growing, Dumitras added, pointing to word of an increase in calls to bc211’s Safe Seniors, Strong Communities program, which matches seniors 65 and older who need support with non-medical essentials such as grocery shopping or phone/virtual visits to volunteers who are willing to help.

The current efforts around Farm to Families programming are “at the very early stages,” however, DIVERSEcity officials have already confirmed that they want to start doing referrals, Dumitras said. “I’m taking requests and compiling them now.”

No limits have been placed on participant numbers so far, however, Dumitras said that could change depending on response. As well, if successful, the program may also continue after the pandemic has ended, she said.

Those wanting to sign up may email farm.to.families@arocha.ca

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