Community Resilience Hub makes connections
After entering through the back gate at 133 McPhillips Avenue in Ganges and climbing down a set of stairs, visitors are greeted by two armchairs in the shape of human hands — one blue and one purple.
Raising your eyes from these really cool chairs, there is a lot to take in at the Salt Spring Island Community Resilience Hub and MakerSpace. Along one purple wall with vibrant bluish purple trim, a row of sewing machines are assembled beside mounds of fabric and craft supplies. Much of the wall space is adorned with artwork of all kinds, and a weaving machine, a mannequin adorned in hand-sewn dress, a crafting table and kitchen space have also found a home here. In the back room there’s a kiln for pottery, which hasn’t been fired yet, and a burgeoning tool library.
As the space itself is busy with all sorts of arts, crafts and human connections, organizer and creative force behind it Nejmah Guermoudi is also bursting with ideas for what comes next.
“It just feels like things move really quickly on the grassroots. Frontline stuff is really fun and exciting. It feels like every day is a new fun adventure,” said the self-defined “clownsellor” who left her role in social services on the island to bring this space to life. She still does this kind of work through The Purpose Project, where she works with individuals on finding purpose rather than simply going through the motions of getting a job.
The resilience hub used to be a bike shop with a massively overgrown backyard, whose landlord was intrigued by Guermoudi and her goal of creating a place for people to make art and be crafty.
Back to the hand-shaped chairs, which came here as a donation early on in the life of the project. The impetus behind the resilience hub connects back to one’s hands, Guermoudi explained, as providing the opportunity for people to keep their hands busy through creative work is powerful.
“Self-creation leads to self-generation, and then it’s something that they truly feel is theirs,” said Guermoudi, whose belief is that the way to wellness is empowering people to make choices for themselves.
“I definitely feel like we’re filling a gap as far as creating some access to tools, art, community supports that maybe they wouldn’t have had normally,” she added.
People come and go as she speaks to the Driftwood in the main room of the hub. Some stay to talk and listen, others are working on art projects and come to find tools to open lids or sew things. She’s seen huge transformations in people who spend an hour a day on their creative practice here.
“It’s generated discipline in a space to just feel like they can just be themselves and they’re not trying to conform.”
The hub is also for people who don’t have a spot to make or store artwork as they may be living on boats, in vehicles or other small spaces.
“We are very much underground, but coming above ground,” Guermoudi said of the physical space as well as the “alternative, underground, hippie” subculture that is drawn here.
“I think it’s really symbolic, actually, what it is to be a subculture and then also to be able to have stuff outside of our fence on the above ground.”
It’s an eclectic group of people who come to spend time, make arts and crafts and connect with community here. Among them are children, artists, “young hippie WWOOFers (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms workers) and Fairy Creekers.” The culture is also one that’s very much a part of and has been nurtured on Salt Spring, Guermoudi said, the difference being in the 1990s you could rent a farmhouse together and live the hippie life while now the island is facing a deepening housing crisis.
Guermoudi herself arrived here as a 16-year-old and “the continuity of care between services like that, for youth like me, there wasn’t anything there,” she recalled. “So I think, “Well, what did I need? What did I need that wasn’t here?”
The answer brings her to the goodness and positivity she saw in the creative space called Alchemi Living Arts, which she was involved in founding together with friends, including the late Indigo Matiko.
“I didn’t have the tools at that time to really understand even what we were trying to do, as far as what it was to create a community space and operate it,” she said.
Guermoudi returned to Salt Spring after Matiko passed away in January of last year. Back for the funeral of her dear friend, Guermoudi said she witnessed the community more fragmented than when she was last there and knew it was time to come back.
“He was just one of those playful creatures who was very neurodivergent and also found his place here. He was very at home here. So I think about how we can support people to not feel so isolated, so they can just be nurtured to be creative,” she said. “Nothing we can do can bring Matiko back, but he’s definitely very with us as far as the spirit goes. I feel very connected with him.”
The hub is also a harm reduction space. People who come are welcomed and accepted and the focus is on behaviour, ensuring all those gathered feel safe in the space.
Guermoudi wants to make clear that the space is low-barrier, yet there is a strict no drug and alcohol policy. “Just by accepting people, meeting them where they’re at, and giving them something to do whether it be a tool or a pen or whatever, we’re reducing harm. That it is a safe space is the actual really important piece.”
If people are too intoxicated they’re offered a ride to somewhere to rest, as the focus is also on making this a safe space for elders, children and people who may be in recovery.
Settling in with neighbours and educating the wider community about who they are and what they do has been part of the work these first few months. It’s about connecting out as well, working on restoration of the creek behind the library, as well as beautifying and gardening in their outdoor space with the help of a Salt Spring Arts grant. Guermoudi is facilitating a sewing clinic at the library this Thursday from 10 to 11:30 a.m. On June 3, the hub will host MLA for Saanich North and the Islands Adam Olsen, and a night market is in the works for the late-June Tour Des Îles.
Weaving the community together here builds resilience, which in essence is “when you’re actually all able to face adversity because there’s a strong network, there’s a strong net that catches everyone.”
Guermoudi is applying to all kinds of grants, has a Patreon set up and is seeking donations of art supplies, tools, funds, as well as people who want to facilitate workshops. To really run the program well would require a few employees, she added.
Eight months since it launched, the resilience hub is thriving and is looking forward to huge changes come Aug. 1. On that date, they’ll move into a 1,000-square-foot classroom and storage space at the Salt Spring Island Middle School (SIMS) set to house arts, sewing, tinkering and DIY stations, a puppet theatre and a tool library. Partners on the SIMS expansion are longtime supporter Lynne Johnson and Art Jam, as well as the Chuan Society, which will likely be involved with the tool library.
The space on McPhillips will transform into more of a calm place for people to engage in music, media, work, board games, crafts, as well as a harm reduction space in the evenings.