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North Shore's Harvest Project marks 30 years of offering a hand up

The local non-proft has kept thousands of people from homelessness and hunger.

Poverty is a trap.

Once it’s got you, it holds tight and the odds of becoming self-sufficient again are stacked against you. It’s something David Foster experienced first-hand. The businessman from West Vancouver found success at a young age but fell on hard times, professionally and personally, and wound up living on the street.

With some help from local churches and charities, he got back on his feet, but came away from his experience seeing the gaps in the system.

The non-profit he later founded is now marking 30 years of helping people from Deep Cove to Horseshoe Bay with a hand up.

“The Harvest Project was created, really out of the strength of his determination to make things better,” said Kevin Lee, development officer.

Decades of change

The Harvest Project’s first office opened in what was then the “rough” neighbourhood of Lower Lonsdale. They provided short-term assistance with groceries or finding a job, mostly on a drop-in basis. But the organization’s evolution came quickly.

Within a few years, the Harvest Project adopted a “client care” model that looks at people in need of help holistically and aims to address areas of concern across their lives. Rather than just a basket of goods, clients get monthly check-ins with a case manager. Together, they set goals, review progress and adjust services accordingly, with compassion and dignity in mind.

“Of course, everything has changed,” said Lee.

As a whole, the North Shore has become wealthier since 1993, but not everyone has enjoyed the abundance, Lee notes, sadly.

“I would say extremely so,” Lee said, adding poverty remains “painfully present.”

In 1993, helping someone to find a rental apartment at a price they could afford was doable.

“Now, of courses, that’s a dream,” Lee said. “Many of those folks are simply not keeping up with the economic rigour of our current society.”

As that struggle has become more intense, Lee said they’ve seen it in the mental health of the clients who come through the door.

“That’s an issue that wasn’t as much the case 30 years ago. We deal with an intense level of anxiety present with a lot of people that we see,” Lee said.

Perhaps most concerning though, Lee said, is the number of clients who suffer from social isolation, which is itself a crisis in public health. Perhaps one of the Harvest Project’s most important strengths is knowing how to greet them, Lee said.

“The Harvest Project exists to welcome the stranger – welcome and listen to the person who is isolated, who doesn’t have a connection in the community and doesn’t have resources in the community and who really needs to be seen and heard,” he said.

Bountiful harvest

Inside the Harvest Project’s Norgate office, there is a makeshift supermarket stocked with healthy foods for clients who need help with groceries. There’s a nutritionist on staff who can help advise clients on meals that will leave them not just with a full tummy, but in better health overall. They’ve formed partnerships with dentists who provide care for those who otherwise could not afford it. There’s a thrift shop inside where clients can keep themselves appropriately clothed. There is art therapy that provides a salve for mental health.

They estimate there are about 500 folks on the North Shore who remain housed today because of the Harvest Project’s rent bank, which offers zero-interest loans to people who are falling behind in rent, or by helping them secure an apartment with first and last months’ rent and a damage deposit.

Hand up, not a hand out

West Vancouver resident Sara (not her real name) said she was grateful to receive the broad array of help when she was referred to the non-profit. In 2021, she was facing a family crisis, eviction and isolation leaving her with no one else she could turn to.

The Harvest Project kept Sara and her daughter from homelessness and hunger, which she remains grateful for, but Sara emphasized the importance of the compassionate approach the staff and volunteers demonstrated with her.

“From the first experience, I really liked them. They are very supportive, very kind,” said the single mom from West Vancouver. “I feel welcomed. I feel like they see me, they know me.”

In keeping with their “hand up, not hand out” mission, clients of the Harvest Project do eventually graduate and no longer need their services. Lee said the average duration in their program is less than two years.

There are “lightbulb moments” when it becomes clear that a client is not just doing better but also feeling better, Lee aid.

“Some folks spend two, three, four years with us. Others move on and find a level of greater health and self-sufficiency in a much shorter period of time,” he said. “We do hear of very conclusive change happening.”

None of it would be possible without gracious donors. From an operating budget of $1.5 million this year, less than $100,000 will be from government sources. The rest comes from North Shore households, businesses as well as religious and community groups who know of the Harvest Project’s good work and want to share in their success.

Among their generous regular donors is North Vancouver’s Bryan Adams, who has told them if the Harvest Project existed when he was young, his family would have needed them.

Next year’s harvest

Like a lot of people running non-profits focused on poverty, Lee would like nothing more than for the Harvest Project to no longer be needed when it comes time for a 40th or 50th anniversary. But he said, it’s more likely the organization will still be here, just further evolved with the times.

“We don’t exist because we want to, particularly, but there seems to be a role to be played by an accepting and welcoming place that has a really broad range of helps,” he said.

Lee said if there’s anything he’d ask of his North Shore neighbours now, it’s that they help share the Harvest Project’s story and make a connection with someone who is struggling.

“And then realize that Harvest Project is in your community to do that at a slightly larger scale to enable the community to be healthier,” he said. “Think about making some support at whatever level an individual or business can.… There are so many creative ways to be generous.”

While all Canadian charities were hit hard during COVID-19 with donors and volunteers disappearing, the Harvest Project adapted quickly, Lee said, keeping its finances in the black. They are, however, still trying to rebuild their volunteer base. One of those most reliable groups to offer their services, Lee said, are past clients.

That’s precisely what Sara has in mind.

“I am about to graduate this month. It was a hard decision to make but I feel I accomplished what I needed over these two years and maybe I need to be more independent,” she said. “In the future, I have the intention to volunteer.”

Stories like Sara’s are what Foster sought for the Harvest Project when he founded the non-profit 30 years ago. Foster died in 2022.

To mark the 30th anniversary of the Harvest Project, the non-profit is collecting photos and stories from clients, graduates, volunteers and donors, which will be incorporated into a digital mosaic. A link for submissions will be added to the Harvest Project's website and social media channels this week. The mosaic will be debuted at an open house the Harvest Project is hosting at its Roosevelt Crescent office on Nov. 2.

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