The plant exchange in 2016, with Diane Gray and Joanne McNeal. We started the Plant Exchange in 2007, as a way to pay it forward and help others. Marilynn McAra, at right, is a Riverdale Master Gardener, who contributed plants, tools, and expertise every year. Supplied
Throughout my life, I have experienced many acts of kindness. These include kindness from individuals, and also government programs that were designed to be helpful.
In 1974, I was a single mother of two girls. I put a down payment on an old house in Norwood, but without a full-time job, traditional banks couldn’t give me a mortgage. One bank manager told me a Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) special program for single parents had just been announced. He kindly walked me to the CMHC office. To my surprise, they approved a mortgage for the full price of the house, plus loan funds to repair the roof, paint, and repair and update electrical and plumbing, with a year to get the work done. The bank manager’s actions, and the CMHC program, were kindnesses that helped me survive. Many other acts of kindness also helped. When contractors saw my situation, they did the work for really low rates, which I appreciated.
Another act of kindness resulted in a full-time job. The producer of a TV series I was acting in, told me about a job being advertised that day. He said he knew I could do it, and to come and apply right away. So even though I had been sanding floors and had to brush off the sawdust, I went. They gave me a trial assignment, and even though I had never done anything like that before, I did well and I was hired on the spot. I was grateful for their kindness, and I worked for them for more than 10 years. I also worked three part-time jobs in addition to the full-time job, while doing renovations and caring for two daughters. They all showed me how kindness can be paid forward in many ways.
In 1991, as I started my Ph.D. studies, I worked at an arts festival in Inuvik where I eventually interviewed more than 50 mostly Indigenous women artists about their lives. I slept on floors in porches, and the Gwich’in and Inuvialuit people took me in their boats out to fish camps to talk to Elders. My research was framed by their acts of kindness. I worked in Inuvik every summer for 12 years. Now, when people from Arctic Canada come to Edmonton, I pay it forward by showing them around Edmonton and taking them to events. I am still working on the book that will keep my promise to return their words to the women and their communities.
In 2006, when I bought my 110 year old house in McCauley, the yard had been used as a parking lot by a former owner. It did not have a single living thing in it. A friend, who was an excellent gardener, saw I needed help, so she gave me many plants and cuttings, slips, and bulbs which are now growing well. She even taught me how to care of them. Other people also gave me raspberry bushes and plants they had too many of. Their kindness helped my yard grow healthy. So, to pay it forward I started an annual Spring Plant Exchange to help others. For 10 years we gave away cuttings and seedlings, and shared care info. Now a Plant Exchange is part of the new Intercultural Centre.
This summer, I offered to dig up a plant if people wanted to have their own raspberry plants. One day, three boys asked if they could have a plant, and I said, “sure.” I went to get the shovel, and when I came back there were 12 kids waiting for a plant! So I dug up a plant of each of them, explaining how to take care of raspberries, and how to pick ripe ones. That was another chance to pay it forward.
All of these wonderful acts of kindness have enriched my life, and helped me survive and support my family. I am honoured and very grateful for all these acts of kindness and more, and I try to pay it forward whenever possible.
Joanne McNeal is a McCauley homeowner, artist, musician, and educator.