This week’s ‘Everyday Hero’ — Canadians who make a difference, but are too modest to sing their own praises — is a Richmond, B.C. woman who leads a group of volunteers who ‘grow’ for those in need.

(RICHMOND, B.C.) Mary Gazetas has made an art form of gathering what others have discarded or overlooked and turning it into something beautiful. As an artist propelled by a kayaker ‘s paddle, she composes “beachscape assemblages” from the smooth green glass and driftwood she finds while travelling throughout B.C.’s coastal waters.

And as a poverty activist and organizer, she collects unwanted fresh fruit and vegetables from farmers in the Lower Mainland and distributes them to food banks desperate for produce that would otherwise rot in the fields. “I’ve always had a passion for gardening on a small scale,” says the 63-year-old Vancouver-born grandmother.

But she never expected she would inspire so many others to dig their fingers into the soil in the fight against hunger. Inspired by the 2000 French documentary The Gleaners and I, about the centuries-old act of “gleaning” or gathering the vegetables left behind by farmers after the harvest, Gazetas worked with four others to form the Richmond Fruit Tree Sharing Project in 2001.

Originally a “food rescue group,” the now non-profit organization has since secured 2.5 acres of land donated by the City of Richmond where volunteers grow root vegetables and other foods, such as beans, broccoli, cauliflower and kale. Last year, with nearly 1,400 volunteers, the project donated 15,000 pounds of food, the bulk of it to the Richmond Food Bank.

“I just love the challenges,” says Gazetas of her work as the group’s chair. “Sometimes, it’s not easy growing food. Right now you should see the weeds!”

While not all food banks welcome fresh food, Gazetas says Margaret Hewlett, co-ordinator of the Richmond Food Bank, considers the quality worth the storage and transportation costs. “She has this incredible appreciation for local food,” Gazetas says.

The Richmond Food Bank serves an average of 350 households a week, and the food donated by the fruit project helps keep costs down while cranking up the nutrition for its clients. “Fresh fruits and vegetables are what people want,” says Hewlett, who works with Gazetas to co-ordinate the harvest around the food bank’s distribution schedule. “They grow with our needs in mind.”

Gleaning, or the “second harvest” as Gazetas says it’s sometimes called, continues even though the organization now has two farms of its own. Gleaners harvest plums, apples and pears from late July through September, and forage for potatoes, cucumbers, beans and other vegetables from Richmond-area fields throughout the fall.

Meanwhile, out at the Terra Nova Sharing Farm, they’ve just finished a cycle of planting, and in the organization’s new greenhouse, volunteers can grow almost 12 months a year, says Gazetas, who frequently finds herself up to her elbows in soil. “I love being outside,” she says. “It makes me strong.”

Gazetas is on location several times a week, leading tours and supervising volunteers, as well as planting, weeding and picking. Back at home, she works tirelessly to promote the project and seek more funding. “I try to make things happen.”

Formerly an employee of the City of Richmond, Gazetas worked for 18 years in the municipal government’s Culture and Heritage Department, where she worked closely with volunteer groups. Now retired, she sees her work with the fruit tree project as a way to honour people she witnessed giving back to their community.

Her family is supportive: Gazetas’s son, a filmmaker, has shot two years of footage for a documentary on the project; her daughter created the group’s Web site. As for her two granddaughters, ages 6 and 9, Gazetas says, “I think they think of their grandmother, ‘Mary’s having lots of fun!’ ”

And for having fun while ‘gleaning’ for those in need, Mary Gazetas and the rest of the Richmond Fruit Tree Sharing Project are this week’s Everyday Heroes.

– Richmond, B.C. residents with a surplus of vegetables or fruit trees to be picked can contact the Richmond Fruit Sharing Project through its Web site, www.sharingfarm.ca, or call 604-270-9874. Volunteers can register online at www.sharingfarm.ca/get_involved.html.

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