HONOURING JEFF WITH A GIFT TO GREEN WOOD 11/26/2021
A talented knitter who designed his own patterns, Jeff O'Neill knitted when he was in a good mental space.
"He reminded me how important it was to be human first and love and accept people on that level before trying to change them." - Stacey DaCosta, probation officer
In the month following their son’s death, Ken and Yvonne O’Neill, and older son, Mark, reached out to Green Wood, “Tell us how we can give back to the Coalition through a gift that honours Jeff’s memory”. Jeff had connected with Green Wood three years earlier, adrift, a tormented soul. But his parents say that from that moment forward, until his death last December at age 43, he found some peace, a sense of belonging he had been denied his whole adult life. “Green Wood gave him a lens into the future as opposed to just surviving,” his mother says. “He didn’t give himself credit for much, he didn’t have much self respect until he spent an extended time there. They walk the talk. They treated him as an important person. He felt valued.”
Ken and Yvonne O'Neill with the new shed at Green Wood's Community Garden
Bullied and rejected in high school, Jeff turned to drugs to escape the loneliness. Over more than 20 years, he was in and out of counselling, addiction treatment and the justice system. He moved around Southern Ontario but always returned home to ground himself in his parents’ love and putter in the family garden, ready to make a fresh start. “He was very bright, an avid knitter who designed patterns. He made many things for people. He was kind and generous and always there to help and support others, often at his own expense,” says his father. Since Jeff’s death, Ken continues to drive folks to and from the Green Wood programs that helped their son, deliver meals, do wellness checks. “The challenge continues for these folks. We have to continue to support them.”
The O’Neills learned about Green Wood through their role as managers of the Port Hope food bank. Green Wood’s Community Dinners took place next door, when the food bank was open, so they talked regularly with David Sheffield. Yvonne and Ken soon embraced Green Wood’s radically different philosophy toward caring for people. They retooled the food bank, referring to people as visitors, not clients, invited users in to shop for food as opposed to receiving handouts, and re-educated volunteers and the community to rethink the food bank’s mission as sharers of food the community has donated rather than “feeding needy people”. Yet during all of this time, their family was living its own private hell. Then one day Yvonne and Ken attended a talk at Port Hope Rotary where David described Green Wood’s programs. That night they asked if Jeff could meet with Green Wood staff. “He was at a point where he didn’t know what else to do or where else to turn,” she says. ”When he found his way to Green Wood he was a hurting soul. There he found acceptance and respect.” Over the more than two decades accessing an array of social services, each helping to some extent, nothing filled the void in Jeff’s life that Green Wood did...the kindness, acceptance, respect, always being there, say his parents.
Jeff was a familiar face at Green Wood's garden.
His first connection came over coffee with outreach worker Nicole Whitmore. “He was knitting away. I just said, ‘What do you want in your life?’ and his eyes filled up with tears, and he said, ‘I don’t know, can you ask me that another day?’ I think we were able to see each others’ pain but understand that there’s healing, there’s kindness, and it’s gentle without judgment.” Over the next three years, they forged a deep friendship. Jeff got involved in Green Wood’s programs - Art Hive, WrapAround Life Planning, but the RedPath Addiction Recovery program Nicole led was transformational. “I admired his strength. I admired everything about him. I was encouraging him to face his fears and demons, and the amount of growth and insight he was able to have just blew my mind. He was doing the work; he was really trying to understand himself.” Jeff reciprocated in a million ways, through a million small kindnesses. “He just cared so deeply for others, he looked at them, and they knew, ‘My ears are safe for you.’ It’s who he was, but I think with the stigma attached to substance use, people just thought he was a lost soul. He wasn’t. He was a beautiful, beautiful person. I couldn’t have made a human better.” His picture sits on her desk, beside a set of his knitting needles. “He is everywhere I go. I miss him every day.” What Jeff loved most was being in nature. No matter where he lived he packed his space with flowers, more houseplants than there was room for. Green Wood’s community garden became a refuge. He’d steal away in the evening, pick a zucchini, take it home to bake bread and then share it at the next day’s RedPath meeting. It’s the reason, together with Green Wood, the family settled on a garden shed as their memorial gift. They wanted to do more than donate money; they wanted to be part of leaving a legacy. So this past summer, father and brother framed in the shed and joined with others to complete it. “As much as we could have done it ourselves, I knew Green Wood’s philosophy; it wasn’t ours to do, it had to be a community thing,” Ken says. Early last December, Ken and Jeff drove to the family cottage in Huntsville to clear away fallen brush after a wind storm. Jeff was alone in the woods when the accident happened; a birch tree fell, fatally pinning him. “During the two-and-a-half hour drive home, I kept thinking to myself, if he had to script this, he probably couldn’t have done it any better. The cottage was always a comfort zone for him. He was out working in the woods, doing something constructive in a place that he loved,” says his Dad. Rarely does the justice system reveal its heart, but shortly after his death, Ken and Yvonne received a note from his probation officer: “There hasn’t been a day since he passed that I don’t think of him sitting in my office knitting away as we had our talks. I smile as I hear his needles clicking away with unreal speed talking about something he was passionate about.... They say when someone passes they leave a mark on us, and Jeff has left me with a sincere wish to treat others with the same kindness and compassion that he did.”