On the Saanich Peninsula’s ȽAU, W̱ELṈEW̱ Tribal School grounds grows a special program – the PEPÁḴEṈ HÁUTW̱ nursery. Here twenty-eight-year-old instructor PEPAḴIYE Ashley Cooper propagates her native plant knowledge to children grades one through ten.

Ashley’s own cultural education has been hard won. She is W̱SÁNEĆ (Saanich) from the W̱JOȽEȽP and Mowachat First Nations, and belongs to the first generation in her family not forced into residential schools. The generational trauma her family endured resulted in unhealthy coping skills. Pressured to deny her cultural identity she experiences an anxiety disorder that unhinged her as an early teen. She dropped out of school, turned to drugs and to escape the violence at home began sleeping in shelters and the streets. Eventually with the help of a therapist she developed new coping skills including one of her own. “I started to fall in love with identifying native plants and used that as a grounding strategy when I felt anxious,” says Ashley. Curious about the healing properties of plants she wanted to learn their SENĆOŦEN names.

“I was terrified to go back to school, but when I realized the statistics – that only 0.2 percent of the W̱ SÁNEĆ (Saanich) Nation speak SENĆOŦEN, I couldn’t wait any longer.” Ashley worked full time as a house cleaner while completing high school and was accepted into University of Victoria’s W̱ ,SENĆOŦEN,IST diploma program. While finishing university she was approached by the United Way-funded PEPÁḴEṈ HÁUTW̱ nursery program to become a workshop leader part time. Since 2011, the nursery has been providing native plants to restoration sites in culturally significant places within the W̱SÁNEĆ territory. The nursery also runs programs teaching children how to identify, grow and care for native plants including ones that can be used as medicines.

Teaching children how to identify plant medicines has given Ashley a sense of purpose she has never known. “Some of our children are living in poverty and can’t afford medicines, so to know I can teach them how to go to a maple tree and harvest ṮESIP, and heal their sore throat makes everything I’ve gone through worthwhile.”

“I’m the first generation in two to speak my language again, and a word I like to teach the children is “JIJEȽ SEN” (I am grateful). “I raise my hands in gratitude to United Way that provides us with the financial support to help make our dreams come true.” Ashley, recently elected Vice President of the new PEPÁḴEṈ HÁUTW̱ Native Plant Society, will no doubt be sowing dreams for generations to come.

Last year, together with your support, United Way Greater Victoria funded 109 programs throughout the Capital Regional District that helped over 111,000 children, youth, adults, families and seniors when they needed it the most.