SPIRIT center offers meaning, hope to those who lost their way | TheUnion.com

SPIRIT center offers meaning, hope to those who lost their way

When Barbara Lindsay-Burns looks over the garden from the back porch of the SPIRIT Peer Empowerment Center, she says she feels hope.

"Working in the soil can be very healing for a lot of people," she said. "It torches the soul space."

Most importantly, stressed Lindsay-Burns, gardening can give a person meaning.

"Every life needs to have meaning — a tangible way to see work come to fruition," she said. "I was once homeless for four years — I had lost a sense of meaning. I was the one yelling and talking to myself at the bus stop."

A decade ago, Lindsay-Burns walked up the path of the SPIRIT Peer Empowerment Center, a free self-help center now located at the end of Gates Place in Grass Valley. Situated in a large home on five acres, the center is open at no charge to people facing challenges to their mental health. Peer counselors are trained to offer acceptance, support, education and advocacy to anyone who comes through the door, thereby empowering themselves.

Lindsay-Burns started out as a peer counselor and is now the executive director. Her personal history, say co-workers, has continued to serve as an inspiration to the many who are beginning their path to recovery. Last year, the center, which works in conjunction with Nevada County Behavioral Health, had 8,000 visits, a remarkable 600 of them unduplicated.

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On Friday, the enthusiasm that surrounded Lindsay-Burns was undeniable as she watched guests at the center and other community volunteers gather in the orchard for an opening ceremony of a new Spirit Center Community Garden.

Spearheaded by Sara Raskie of Sierra Native Alliance and Tony Cervantes, a consultant with the Sacramento Native American Health Center and Nevada County Behavioral Health, the aim of the new project is to create a garden that embraces the entire community, while serving as a healing place for SPIRIT Center guests and to help reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.

"This will encourage people to eat locally and seasonally," said Cervantes. "Gardening promotes wellness spiritually, emotionally and physically. Volunteers learn to build trust in themselves and a sense of belonging to something. But we want to stress this is a community project — we are excited about collaborating with other agencies and individuals."

While SPIRIT Center participants work alongside others in the garden, they are learning valuable skills, said Lindsay-Burns, such as agriculture, social interaction, collaboration, delayed gratification, the joy of sharing food with those in need and possibly selling surplus at farmers markets.

"It means a lot when you feel like your contributions matter," she said. "People feel a sense of belonging, and when you feel accepted, that goes a long way. It really reduces depression and feelings of isolation."

Numerous studies suggest that gardening can have a profoundly positive effect on mental health. Horticultural therapists are now being employed around the country in hospitals, recovery centers and cities. The Greenhouse Project at New York's notorious Rikers Island Jail now uses horticultural therapy to help quiet inmates.

Woven into the new SPIRIT Center garden project — which includes regular Friday morning work parties, beginning at 10 a.m. Sept. 6 — will be the sharing of Native American culture, said Raskie, including the science of the medicine wheel, enjoying meals, identifying medicinal plants and hosting seasonal celebrations. Rituals will include a drum circle — such as the one that took place Friday.

Organizers are continuing to reach out to individuals, businesses and organizations for donated tools, seeds, plants and ongoing funding.

"We want to increase community wellness and mental health with a focus on local, healthy food production and consumption," said Raskie. "We will reduce our carbon footprint and deepen our connection with the seasons and nature. All of this will be accomplished through a strong educational effort about the interdependence between how we grow food, prepare and consume it and our health. The 'community' in the Community Garden is about all human beings loving and caring for each other — helping each other out."

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email cfisher@theunion.com or call 530-477-4203.

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