“In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything is in connection with something else” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe                                                                                         

Nature shows us the power of building and sustaining connections. For example, we know that animals and plants have a symbiotic relationship. Animals pollinate plants, spread seeds and feed off the parasites, while plants provide habitat and food for animals.

People, living busy lives, often overlook their connection to nature, and to one another. However, research clearly indicates that we are happier and healthier when we are more connected to other people and to the world around us.

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These vital connections are at the heart of the Be a Native Plant Guru workshop series, supported through the Greenbelt River Valley Connector Program. The program connects local newcomers in Toronto’s Don Mills and Sheppard area, a tower community in the inner suburbs which is one of the densest neighbourhoods in the city. Ana Cuciureanu, one of the organizers behind the series said: “I wanted to help build people’s relationship to the ravines, which are all around us. And, at the same time, help build their sense of being connected to one another. It’s really two sides of the same coin.”

Residents of the Ward 17 neigbourhood live adjacent to ravines and to the Don River, but many don’t even know the watershed exists. This watershed, along with other major urban river valley systems have been newly designated as a Greenbelt Protected watershed.

Ana Cuciureanu says: “These places are protected for the future. They’re right in our community and this program helps lead people into these places through the lens of native plants. We all care about what we can do to improve our health. So we used that lens to connect people to our protected watershed.”

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I joined Friends of Parkway Forest Park  on one of their native plant workshops and walk which was focused on medicinal plants commonly used by the East Asian Community. Other workshops focused on native plants used for, South Asian, European, Middle Eastern and Indigenous medicine.

Over fifty enthusiastic participants listened intently as Dr. Yeong Sang Kim (whom participants called “Dr. Steve”) talk about commonly found herbs like dandelion and plantain, and their powerful health benefits. “If you can’t fix it with food,” he said, “medicine can’t cure it.”

Armed with new knowledge about plants many previously considered “just weeds,” we set out to see the plants growing in the community and in the local ravines. “Water nourishes these plants, and the plants nourish us. We wanted to emphasize that protected water is linked to the protection of our health.”

Along the path, the participants visited several community organizations including Hong Fook and IWOO, which offer many services including programs that address mental and physical health. “We wove in these visits because, again, we want people to take a holistic view of health and well-being” says Anna. “We want them to know what surrounds them, like the water and plants. These organizations are vital to the community and can help us feel more connected to one another.”

Each of Friends of Parkway Forest Park’s’ workshops put Greenbelt protected watersheds in the spotlight and in so doing demonstrated the vital connection between the health of our water and the health of the community. As one of the heads of Friends of Parkway Forest Park, Anna wanted to share: “We’re so grateful for the support of the Greenbelt River Valley Connector Program. Parkway Forest was once an actual forest where we could easily access water and nature. Rebuilding that connection, and protecting it for the future, will help this community thrive.”

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