Walking along East Hastings in Vancouver, my stomach turns at the blunt contrast between poverty and luxury. It never gets easier to see. Homeless people sit, heads bowed to cardboard change cups, kitty corner to L’Abattoir – a classy, French-inspired West coast restaurant. So close, but untouchable. Those who live in the Downtown Eastside face incredibly challenging socio-economic barriers, yet their capacity for generosity and understanding has inspired a Canadian mother-daughter team to grow roots there. Sarah and Julia Common are using beehives as a hub to bring life and colour to Hastings. In 2012, Hives for Humanity was born.
Starting with a single hive, their first apiary resides to this day in the Hastings Folk Garden – right beside the supervised injection site, where people with chronic drug addictions go to safely use. From day one, innate curiosity about the charismatic honey bees drew people in. “I never forgot that day when Sarah came to check the hives at our building and invited me to come over and join the group,” says Gafar Yousif, who lives in the Lux housing complex for homeless people just one block from the Folk Garden. “The community response was inspiring,” Sarah (Julia’s daughter) reminisces. “We saw the bees creating hope and fostering self-worth, with potential for social enterprise. We knew we had to keep going.”
Hives for Humanity offers therapeutic apiaries and gardens as channels to transfer core values – respect, self-worth, inclusivity, education, trust, and opportunity – to at-risk community members, while giving them transferable employment skills where possible. Sarah and Julia began organizing beekeeping mentorship programs, apiculture workshops, and other activities around the culture of the beehive, all operating near East Hastings. One anonymous Eastside community member perfectly summarized their mission: “There is life beyond drug addiction, prostitution and alcoholism. This work helps you make that shift. You see yourself differently.” For many people, this is their first step away from the margins.
Sarah and Julia never expected that their experiment in the Folk Garden would mature into the entity it is today. Nor did they think their influence would extend beyond Vancouver. But now, they manage over one hundred honey bee colonies and after consulting with community centers in Victoria and Halifax, similar honey bee-based initiatives in at-risk communities are spanning coast to coast. With Canada’s opioid crisis in full swing, Hives for Humanity is now poised to have a greater impact than ever before.
An active pitch – to be continued!