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March 26, 2015, 4:25 PM  |  News

“The thing that often gets missed in portrayals of this community is the humanity of the people and the stories behind the demonized addict,” says Sarah Common, a social worker in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Sarah founded the non-profit Hives for Humanity in 2012 with her mother, Julia Common, a veteran master beekeeper who has a M.Sc. in agriculture.

“Hives for Humanity pairs social work with horticulture and apiculture,” says Sarah. “It’s these three things – the garden, bees and people – that make it work.”

“And that make it strong,” adds Julia. “People step up to the needs of Hives for Humanity, and in stepping up, they raise themselves up.”

Mother and daughter sit in the white-washed foyer of their newly renovated headquarters, The Bee Space at 580 Powell Street, warmly playing off each other as they talk about the organization they created together, after an uncertain start.

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Sarah and Julia Common. Photo courtesy Sarah Common

“For however long Sarah’s been working in the Downtown Eastside, I’d been trying to get her out,” quips Julia. Prior to 2012 Julia worked in West Vancouver’s private school system where Sarah got her education. The annual conversation, says Sarah, went something like: “Why are you working in that community? Please leave.”

In 2006, while completing UBC’s Global Resource Systems program, Sarah did a project with the Portland Hotel Society’s Drug Users Resource Centre and “really fell in love with the community and the opportunities here.”

She began volunteering at the Centre, which led to full-time work. She then got involved with the green spaces that the PHS runs. “I started thinking about how I could get more people involved, and how mom and I could spend more meaningful time together,” she says.

In June 2012, at Sarah’s request, Julia hesitantly brought one hive – containing approximately 60,000 honey bees – into Hastings Folk Garden next to Insight, North America’s first legal supervised injection site operated by the PHS and Vancouver Coastal Health. The hive was part of a pilot project to produce honey that would support the Therapeutic Beekeeping Program they hoped would enhance the community and benefit both at-risk residents and bees.

Sarah encouraged her mom to engage with the residents. But Julia would say, “they’re scary and I don’t know what they’re going to do.”

“Try harder,” said Sarah.

“And once she said that and I did that, that’s when Jim got a name,” said Julia.

Jim has lived in the DTES for nearly 20 years, and is very involved in advocating for his peers, drug users in the community. “He’s a peer – a word that gets used for community residents who volunteer, usually in a harm reduction context – and works at a needle exchange window and at the garden as a Gatekeeper,” Sarah said.

As the summer of 2012 ended, with Jim an engaged and everyday beekeeping participant, a conversation he had with Julia would be the spark that changed the course of her life and Sarah’s. He spoke of “next year” and shared ideas on splitting the hive into two and taking the bees to different gardens.

“Because people here are so often stuck in a five-block radius and a repeating pattern of living in survival mode, for someone to be thinking of next year is quite rare,” says Sarah. “To have the hope that next year will be there and that next year can bring growth and opportunity, to be looking that far ahead in a positive way is definitely significant.”

“So that was the conversation when we realized that we had to found Hives for Humanity and keep going,” Sarah explained. “We had to keep building that hope in other niches of this community.”

“We have two core programs,” says Sarah. “They are our Therapeutic Beekeeping Program and our Neighbourhood Honey Program. We created the honey program to make honey to sell to support the Therapeutic Beekeeping.”

The program has grown from a single hive to more than 100 throughout Vancouver. The Therapeutic Beekeeping Program in the DTES has continued to grow and now mentors beekeepers and gardeners at nine different apiaries in gardens (like the Hastings Urban Farm) and on rooftops. Each garden contains two beehives, for a total of nearly one million bees!

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Julia Common tending to her Downtown Eastside Hives. Photo courtesy Sarah Common

The remaining 80 hives are part of the Neighbourhood Honey Program, which allows people from across the city to host a hive in their garden tended by a member of the Hives team. The cost is determined on a sliding scale depending on income and the host gets a big bucket of hyper-local honey. Ten different neighbourhood honeys are prepared by small-batch extraction highlighting the terroir (the effects that the local environment has on the production of the product) of each distinct community. Over 2,000 lbs were harvested last year.

“The Bee Space is so nice because we can feature our honey and show people how deliciously complex and unique honey is when done by neighbourhood,” said Julia, pointing to their retail space stocked with neighbourhood honey, plus candles, salves, lip balms and swag.

“We used to lose touch with people in the winter, and now they can come here,” said Sarah. They also use the space to host bee-centric workshops and they are putting the finishing touches on a new café.

Cultivating terroir is another focus of Hives for Humanity, who spearheaded the Pollinator Corridor Project with the support of the City of Vancouver and 27 partner organizations. The project extends along the East Hastings corridor from the Fairmont Waterfront to Clark Drive.

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Children check-out the local hives and learn about the importance of bees in the environment. Photo courtesy Sara Common

The project promotes biodiversity by connecting different pollinator populations – honey bees and native species like mason bees and bumble bees – and providing them with forage (food) and habitat in green spaces, rooftops, patios, businesses and backyards.

“I feel so passionate about the bees, who are in trouble, and I think the way we’re beekeeping here is hugely significant in providing them safety,” said Julia. “And then to have seen the amount of knowledge hiding in the people in the DTES has been a huge education for me.”

Adds Sarah, “I think the piece that’s really exciting is that it’s an inclusive program offering everybody the chance to support the pollinators, by connecting communities that include folks living on the street, women living in shelters, and youth at risk, but also families from West Vancouver to UBC and guests staying at the Fairmont Waterfront.”

“This is a rather big risk we’re taking,” says Julia referring to their complete investment in Hives for Humanity. “It’s a risk with the bees because of people being nervous about them, so education and annual professional development have been so important. It’s a risk financially too. I’m a risk taker, but I’ve never taken such a risk, and I’ve never been so vulnerable or felt so alive and happy.”

By Catherine Roscoe Barr

Photos courtesy Sarah Common/Hives for Humanity

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