ICE LAKE—Chuc and Linda Willson have a passion for growing food that not only nourishes our bodies but gives those who plant, harvest and eat it a sense of pride.
The couple has been involved with the Farmers’ Market (established in 1989) for many years with their Our Garden jellies and oils. When they began selling bedding plants at the weekly market, Mr. Willson took it to the next level when he realized “kids can grow.” Working in the soil to ‘create a miracle’ was something both adults and young children could be part of.
They took their passion for organic healthy food on the road and what began with two schools in 2006 has now grown to eight including Birch Island. Every school on the Island has its own garden and each child in Sheshegwaning has one at their home.
The couple visits schools to show children that the tiny seed in their cupped hands will one day be planted in soil, watered and nurtured by the sun to sprout and grow into something they were a part of.
Most recently they visited April Patterson’s Grade 3/4 class at C.C. McLean Public School in Gore Bay. “It was a rich learning experience for them,” Ms. Willson said.
Part of the in-class presentation is done with use of teaching aids complete with the Kids Can Grow logo: The Medicine Wheel and The Four Elements: north (air), east (fire), south (earth) and water (west).
“When children put their hands in the soil, their faces change,” said Mr. Willson. “They go to a serene place and actually adopt the plants.”
“We have lost our attachment to the earth; it is so much a part of us,” said Mr. Willson.
The couple provides resources for each school taking them step by step: from seed to root to stem, to leaf, flower and fruit.
“It is so rewarding,” shared Mr. Willson. The program has also been well-received at Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS) with educators Judy Olacke and Peter Nelson taking the lead.
In 2009 the Willsons through the Sudbury and District Health Unit became involved with the Child Poverty Tax Force which addresses poverty issues. Mr. Willson stated that 62 percent of our children go to school hungry. They offer workshops to provide information to teach the planning and preparation of healthy and nutritious meals.
The Good Food Box program—a spinoff from the Child Poverty Tax Force—is yet another project the couple is part of. “It puts fresh fruit and vegetables on the table.”
The largest user of the program, which “provides 100 percent organic food” once a month, are residents of Gore Bay, shared Ms. Willson. For $17 (large bin) or $9 (small bin), single moms, those living in subsidized housing or individuals with food insecurities can take advantage of this year round program.
Volunteers like the Willsons organize and distribute the boxes. The Good Food Box team currently has one driver and is seeking a second.
Ms. Willson took over the gardening chores during the past season as her husband was hospitalized following back surgery. “She did an amazing job,” Mr. Willson said proudly.
The decision to downsize their Our Garden product focusing on jellies and oils was not an easy one. With the help of Kerri Lattimer they hope to take a step back and hand off the watering can to someone who shares their vision.
This ambitious couple has taken on yet another great project which will ideally include residents of Gore Bay and neighbouring townships of Gordon/Barrie Island and Billings. They have been fortunate to have a parcel of land donated to them to create a community garden. The size of the land is not defined as of yet. Their goal is to have a three-year internship program set up. It will be volunteer driven. Five to seven acres would be ideal to grow potatoes, carrots, peppers and beets.
A three-year program, Healthy Kids Community Challenge made possible by a grant, provides yet another fresh food initiative through Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee and Noojmowin Teg is based in Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation. This program is supported by the Kids Can Grow project, the Sudbury District Health Unit and Trillium funding.
Ms. Willson recently stepped down from her role as chair of the Manitoulin Lodge Family Council and offered her background in teaching in an advisory capacity to sit on the Board of Directors for the Gore Bay Day Care at CC McLean Public School.
The couple offers their voices to the Community Choir whose most recent concert was held this past Saturday at the Park Centre. Mr. Willson took a year off to rest his back and was thrilled to be able to join the choir to take part in the Canada 150 themed presentation.
Ms. Willson and four other local artists have joined an artisan collective to share studio space at the Gore Bay Harbour Centre (formerly Fish Point Studio). They include Christie Pearson Anderson, Ursula Hettmann, Wendy Heitkamp along with Paul and Jane Best. Ms. Willson has joined forces to help others showcase their work.
Where they find the energy and time to volunteer for so many great causes is mind boggling. “We believe in helping our community,” the couple said. “It goes both ways.”