Prior to 1983, the concept of environmental stewardship, caring for creation, was relatively unknown in Christian circles. A chance meeting by English Pastor Peter Harris and Zoologist Les Batty led to the first Christian Field Study Centre. Originally planned for Northern England, the centre opened in Portugal in 1986, hence the name A Rocha, which is the Portuguese word for rock. Before long, the organization was gaining international recognition. Today A Rocha has locations in 20 countries, focusing on conservation science, education and environmental stewardship.
In 2000, A Rocha arrived in Canada and in 2003 set up its first environmental centre in South Surrey. In 2010, A Rocha moved operations to its present site. Brooksdale is located on a 27-acre property through which the Little Campbell River flows. There are two large homes on the property allowing for overnight visitors as the main guest house includes five bedrooms.
The other home is used to house up to 15 Interns. Interns come from around the world and include university and post-grad students as well as families and high school graduates on a gap year. They come for a three month stay to gain work experience, but many agree they’ve gotten much more. “They say the experience transforms them,” says Leah Kostamo, the Spiritual Care Coordinator and Co-Founder of A Rocha Canada. “They’ve come to be trained in Conservation Biology or Environmental Education, and almost all say that living in community and learning to eat and cook seasonally from a garden is the most transformative, because it is through these activities they have experienced joy,” she explains.
Luke Wilson, A Rocha Canada’s CEO adds, “Young adults join in spiritual rhythms of work, prayer, communal worship and meals. In the end, they experience a deeper hope in Christ, his love for Creation and clarity of how to make a difference,” he says.
A pillar of A Rocha Canada is Conservation Science. The Little Campbell River is one of the most endangered rivers in British Columbia and like other watersheds in the developed world, it is experiencing habitat loss because of development. Interns help to restore the sensitive habitat and they collect data to help determine the health and future of the river. “City of Surrey staff now rely on our data and even present it at City-sponsored meetings as information used to determine planning,” says Kostamo.
Another initiative is protecting the Western Toad. The Western Toad is a native species that is considered a Species at Risk because of declining numbers due to habitat loss. A great number of these toads breed in a pond near the A Rocha Centre. Every spring, Interns conduct a ‘toad survey’. As well, the toads migrate in the spring from the woods to the pond and their route includes crossing a busy road. Volunteers and Interns have erected ‘toad fences’ to protect the little creatures as they migrate. “We funnel them though a culvert, so they won’t get squished by cars on the road,” says Kostamo.
The Community Shared Agriculture Program (CSA) is another A Rocha project. On five acres, the organization’s farmers grow enough produce to feed an astounding 500 people a week. This produce is available to the community through the CSA. An individual or family can purchase a share, and this will provide them with a large bin of seasonal, organically-grown vegetables for 20 weeks. Beginning in May, there will be 150 shares available.
Brooksdale offers spring and summer camps for children on the site. The large acreage has forests and fields and includes a large pond that is perfect for ‘pond dipping’. School field trips are available as well throughout the year and upward of 2,000 children are welcomed yearly.
Brooksdale is the flagship project of A Rocha Canada but there are three more locations. In Northern BC, A Rocha manages the Upper Bulkley Valley Stream-keepers Project. The Boreal Ecology Centre in East Braintree, Manitoba includes a 220-acre boreal forest. Cedar Haven Eco-Centre in Hamilton, Ontario consists of six hectares of mixed forest for study and is a site for monitoring bumble bees.
When tragedy struck in 2019, the A Rocha family was shaken. Peter Harris, his wife Miranda and A Rocha’s Executive Director, Chris Naylor and his wife Suzanna were involved in a car crash in South Africa. Everyone except Peter Harris died. “Peter is being cared for by close friends in the UK. The extent of his injuries and past health conditions make this a slower process. A Rocha International (ARI) and the Board of Trustees are searching for a new leader to replace Chris Naylor. They have also been working on a new covenant that re-imagines the way our A Rocha family works together,” reports Wilson.
A Rocha Canada continues to see more interest in its programs. Wilson attributes this to a growing interest in the environment. “As a result, we are hearing from churches and groups in Calgary, Saskatoon, Halifax and others,” he says, “These groups are eager to start A Rocha sites or projects. We encourage these groups to mobilize their communities and glean from A Rocha, however in the short-term we are not accepting new A Rocha groups. We want to prepare well to serve new local places and our future is all about creating deeper roots before expanding our canopy, he explained.
For more information about A Rocha Canada visit www.arocha.ca.