Planted about 250 metres behind the barn at Red Roof Retreat, a grove of 31 trees, all species native to Southern Ontario, will soon be a place of serene reflection.
It’s Owen Bjorgan’s latest project, a way for his business, Owen’s Hiking and Adventures, to give back to the community and to the people who have shaped him and made him who he is today.
Fittingly, each of the 31 trees will be planted in memory of a loved one lost. Friends, family members, long-time Red Roof Retreat clients, and board members, each honoured by these lasting tributes to their lives.
Bjorgan began the project last week, with the planting of a black walnut tree in memory of his long-time friend Dan Herzog. His high school classmate and roommate at the University of Guelph passed away in October, 2020 at only 28 years old.
“Dan was a little guy, with an enormous personality,” says Bjorgan. “He was very daring, very original, very funny, and highly respected in the community. I intentionally wanted to get the biggest, most significant tree in the ground right away for Dan. It’s pretty symbolic.”
Below the newly-planted tree sits a longboard, a method of travel and entertainment over which Owen and Dan formed a bond, cementing their friendship. “He helped me pick it out when he first opened The Board Store (in St. Catharines, an arm of his family’s St. Paul Street business),” Bjorgan points out. “He and I would shred around on that for many hours over the years, up and down the escarpment.”
Dan’s parents, Rob and Gisela, came out to the grove last week for the planting, tears welling up in their eyes as the tree found its rightful place, sitting like a sentinel for the other 30 trees soon to be planted.
“It’s really important to us that Dan not be forgotten,” says Rob. “He was a really special kid, outgoing, outdoorsy. Every other kid would be on their computers playing games, and he would be outdoors. He was a bit wild, snowboarding off our roof, stuff like that.”
He and Gisela were both very appreciative of Owen memorializing their son with the black walnut tree, with Gisela becoming very emotional, he added. They plan to visit the site often, and have promised to have a plaque made up to mark the tree’s significance.
Last Thursday, Owen, his girlfriend Kirstyn Smith, brother Isaac and parents Steffanie and Moe, were working throughout the stifling hot afternoon and evening to plant the trees, all acquired at Gauld’s Nursery.
A yellow buckeye sits on the back of an ATV, ready to be planted in memory of Owen’s grandmother, Flora Bjorgan.
“It’s a big shade tree,” he says. “She’s got that grandmother, matriarchal kind of figure, she provided shade over all of us as a family. The tree was a one-off that I got from Gauld’s, a pretty special, unique tree to pick up. The nature of it, the way it grows, it’s symbology, it represents the nature of people.”
Bjorgan, a regular contributor to The Local, explains the multi-faceted reasoning behind his contribution to the grounds at Red Roof.
“There’s the memorial tree aspect,” he says, “but also, given the amount of trees that my business is able to donate and give back to the community here, this will actually add to the habitat corridor of one of Four Mile Creek’s tributaries. As I’ve mentioned in many articles in The Local, our forest coverage in Niagara-on-the-Lake is around 10 per cent or less, and decreasing as we speak. So the time is today to plant a tree. What better way to give back to nature.”
Eight different species are being planted in the area, most in a clearing through which Red Roof clients often enjoy horse and buggy rides. The path is wheelchair accessible, making it possible for all of those clients to fully experience nature. Bjorgan also explains the importance of the trees in continuing the habitat corridor, which he says is crucial for biodiversity, canopy coverage and the water quality of Four Mile Creek.
Another facet to the project, of course, is the mother-son connection. Owen is currently staying at the property, taking care of it as Red Roof Retreat, begun by his mother Steffanie 20 years ago, has been shut down for over 14 months.
Bjorgan’s girlfriend Kirstyn, who shares his love of nature, is in awe of the way Owen and Steffanie both contribute to the betterment of their community.
“It’s a beautiful thing, having a business of 20 to 25 years, and a business of five years, putting that same vibe out there, that they want to do more for the environment,” says Smith. “I’m happy to be a part of it. Everybody should be able to come together to see the beauty of what they can do for others, instead of just themselves.”
“Owen has been such a big part of this property,” Steffanie adds. “We had the (Niagara Peninsula) Conservation Authority come here in 2010 and we rejigged a few things to establish the wetlands. He’s been involved in that. With his background, I trust him completely. He gets super-pumped about this stuff.”
COVID has given the Bjorgans time to finally get to this project, which was first conceptualized about four years ago. A major part of the memorial aspect is a chance to remember Red Roof clients who are no longer with them.
“All of our clients are special,” says Steffanie, “but there are some that came at a certain time when we were changing and growing, and their families were very involved. When we reached out to some of the families, everybody responded instantly.”
Steffanie mentions Sam Austin, a client from day one, who died unexpectedly about seven years ago.
“He was a lifer, such a big piece here,” she says. “He was always in the playground, so his tree is going to go near the playground. The family is all on board for that, and they’ll be coming out to do their tree.”
Jennifer Barclay was the first client in their day program.
“We opened up the program with her in mind,” explains Steffanie. “We had to give her mom and sister a break. She was non-verbal, and tiny, but she had this power about her. I was so determined to find a way to serve her when no one else could. She was one of my most magnificent clients in terms of energy. Jenny and Sam were two iconic figures who helped steer us where we were going.”
Jennifer passed away in February, 2011. Her mother and sister Gillian still visit Red Roof, almost every other day.
“Red Roof was everything to us and my sister,” Gillian tells The Local. “When she turned 18, there was no programming for her. Steffanie and my mom and a lot of other people had to figure out what to do when our children became adults. Red Roof gave my sister a place to go.”
Gillian says the options facing her sister included at-home care, day programs at nursing homes, or being admitted to a long-term care facility. None of those options fit Jennifer’s personality.
“My sister was a typical teenager, who liked to party, hang out, watch shows, and listen to music. She didn’t want to be cooped up. So Red Roof gave her that. It was amazing. With the horses out on the ranch, she was able to do a lot of animal therapy. It was huge for her to have something to do every day. And the respite program on the weekends gave us (Gillian and her mother) time to recharge.”
She noticed an amazing change in Jennifer from the beginning of her time with Red Roof. Her mood was improved, she became more aware, more vibrant, a part of a community.
This year being the 10-year milestone of Jennifer’s passing, the Barclays welcomed the chance to remember her with the tree planting.
“When I found out Owen was getting all of these trees, I thought that was fantastic,” Gillian says. “But then when he offered to plant a tree in honour of my sister, that filled my heart with so much joy. It came just before Mother’s Day, and really made my mom’s day. Having a tree that is going to be a part of something that is so long-lasting, and putting my sister’s name on one of these trees, it’s amazing.”
With the Barclays and the Bjorgans tied together through Red Roof Retreat, Gillian knows her sister’s tree will be watched over with love and care by Owen. As much as she admires Owen for his decision to memorialize Jennifer, she also is in awe of his commitment to nature.
In addition to the clients, trees will also be planted in memory of past board members. Long-time board chair Bill Francombe, who passed away in 2019, will be honoured with a tree. And one will be placed in honour of long-time supporter Kevan O’Connor, the NOTL realtor who died suddenly in 2018.
“He was such a big force in our lives, even before Red Roof,” Steffanie says of O’Connor. “He loved my kids. Even to this day there are moments that just grab me, that he’s not here. He was such a huge presence.”
There are 4,000 feet of linear trails through the Red Roof property, all of which lead back to the barn. It’s impossible to get lost. But it will forever be possible for all visitors, despite any disability, to experience nature and to enjoy the preserved wetlands. And to remember those who have had an impact on the Bjorgans and Red Roof Retreat.
“Even when I’m no longer here, these trees will be here for the public, the clients at Red Roof Retreat, and their family and friends to enjoy,” says Owen. “As well as the animals. I’m so happy that I’ve had the time, the opportunity, and the window to give back like this. It feels really freakin’ good!”