How Our Rooftop Garden Helps Youth Learn Important Life Skills

The rooftop garden at Covenant House is much more than a green space. It’s a place of connection and learning – a peaceful spot where youth can connect, build skills and gain the confidence to take that next step forward in their journeys.

It’s one of youth worker Zahra Parvinian’s favourite places at Covenant House to help youth learn critical life skills – tools they can use as they move out of the shelter and into their futures.

“The garden is a way I can help show them how to be self-sufficient,” says Zahra who works part-time in the CIBC Rights of Passage program, which helps prepare young people for independent living out in the community.

Gardening helps show youth how to care for something, to nurture it and eventually harvest the fruits of their labour. Zahra shows them how to use as much as possible in recipes, so they can learn to cook for themselves. She also shows them how to ferment vegetables so they can have food in the winter.

“That connection it can make with food and healing and nutrition – all of those pieces are important for youth to experience,” adds Sonya Gammal, the Chef Instructor for Cooking for Life (CFL), an employment readiness program that, in the spring, has youth up on the rooftop planting herbs and vegetables and taking care of them as they grow.

Then, in the summer, CFL youth help harvest the herbs – fragrant basil, oregano and mint – and incorporate them into the recipes they develop in the downstairs kitchen, a key ingredient in lasagnas or garnishes sprinkled around other dishes.

The gifts of the garden extend beyond skills built through planting and harvesting: it’s a peaceful space staff also use to help youth work on their mental health.

Spiritual care advisor Ram Villardo will sometimes do his one-on-one meetings with youth upstairs in the rooftop garden, as the calm atmosphere helps them to connect. He also uses the space to help them learn how to meditate –challenging them to stay grounded despite the noises around them.

Life skills coordinator Lillian Gong will also use the space for group gatherings – this month, she’ll host two group hangouts up on the roof, which she finds helps youth feel relaxed and more open with one another.

“It’s always inspiring to be up in the garden,” Sonya says. “And that it can help young people develop skills and light that spark – that’s something we always want to nurture in the youth we serve.”