Youth encouraged to cultivate traditional roots

Racial stereotyping, prejudice and instability destroys youth self-esteem. To foster character and cultural pride, Culturally Relevant Urban Wellness (CRUW) supplies a vital wellspring of nourishment and empowerment for at-risk youth-in-care primarily through the teachings and history of Aboriginal culture. The CRUW program serves 27 youth each year, ages 12 to 15 years old, at the UBC farm on unceded Musqueam territory. 

On an early October Saturday morning, when most teens would prefer to be sleeping in or watching TV, 85 per cent of the original group of at-risk youth-in-care are getting ready for their last day at CRUW.

While many programs provide hourly pay to convince at-risk youth to attend their sessions, CRUW’s remarkable retention rate does not require financial incentive.

CRUW youth and staff designing the new garden into circular shapes to honor an Indigenous worldview.

CRUW youth and staff designing the new garden into circular shapes to honor an Indigenous worldview. | Photo by Clarissa Poernomo

A hands-on approach to growing and healing

CRUW offers both Aboriginal youth (75 per cent of whom are in the care of non-Aboriginal foster parents) and non-Aboriginal youth an opportunity to learn about Aboriginal culture. While doing so, they offer a haven for each participant regardless of their background.

Their mission is to enable the youth to apply the objectives of “Honouring Diversity,” “Emotional and Cultural Competence,” “Holistic Urban Wellness” and “Mentorship” to their daily lives. Part of each day is devoted to achieving these aims through gardening.

Hannah Lewis, CRUW’s program partner/program co-ordinator, says at the beginning of each year the participants choose a variety of vegetables to plant in the CRUW garden.

CRUW youth preparing smoked salmon for packaging to be distributed at their graduation ceremony. | Photo by Freida Gladue

CRUW youth preparing smoked salmon for packaging to be distributed at their graduation ceremony. | Photo by Freida Gladue

“They grow corn, beans, squash and potatoes, which are indigenous to Central and South America; something they learn about from their visit with the Maya in Exile Garden every summer. Other plants such as bok choy and edamame are indigenous to other parts of the world,” says Lewis.

The youth also work with and learn about medicinal plants in the Indigenous Health Garden, such as Nootka rose, Labrador tea, and woodland strawberry.

Jeffrey Schiffer, CRUW’s program supervisor, believes the concept of holistic wellness being imparted to the youth through working in the garden needs to precede teaching life skills.

“People don’t give enough credence to the soft skills and the qualitative aspects of supporting minority or vulnerable youth,” says Schiffer.

A safe place

Schiffer says the CRUW logo reflects a Hopi prophecy and is at the heart of the engaging holistic healing programming.

The logo uses four multi-coloured objects (perceived as seeds or leaves) to depict, according to the prophecy, how people will be healed when the four people (white, black, red and yellow) from the four corners of the world are brought together. The leaves/seeds shown in the logo also represent the four aspects of wellness: mental, physical, emotional and spiritual.

“The circle in the middle [of the logo] is a bird’s eye-view of the youth standing out on the land,” says Schiffer.

Every other Saturday, from March to October, the youth participate in activities such as gardening, smoking salmon and drum-making. Seminars are also offered; with topics including restorative justice, substance abuse prevention and reduction designed to catalyze healing, wellness and empowerment.

CRUW aims to eliminate internalized and externalized racism. Mainstream culture being rife with instances of stereotyping and racism, the lessons learned consistently remind staff and youth to resist racism.

“I’ve heard the youth say specifically, ‘I feel like I can be myself when I’m at CRUW because when I’m at school, I’m pigeonholed into this one certain type of person and I can’t escape until I graduate,’” says Lewis.

A small part of a bigger trend

Dr. Lee Brown, CRUW’s Elder co-ordinator from UBC, says there are many more opportunities for Aboriginals today than there were for him when he was young. Brown references affirmative occurrences where Aboriginals are winning court cases, opening businesses and becoming more academically accomplished. Brown believes the program plays a part in this “upward trend.”

“The garden does play a role in that [upward trend] because one of the strong teachings of the garden is creating community around food and how that process is done. I think that is a lesson that many of the youth will take with them,” says Brown.

Schiffer agrees the connection to the land conveyed by the elders is invaluable to the youth.

“No matter how many kids you put through a program and teach how to write a SAT or a resume, you can never give them a greater gift than recognizing that they can connect with land for wellness anywhere,” says Schiffer.

For more information about the CRUW program, please visit