U Grow Girl, On A Mission To Increase Awareness And Promote Healing From Childhood Sexual Abuse

Canadian Co-Founders Crystal Wood and Leha Marshall, survivors themselves, are helping female childhood sexual abuse “survivors” become “warriors” through the Time to Heal retreats they offer, funded by U Grow Girl’s flower and product sales, and scholarship donations made by generous contributors. 

Congratulations are in order for Crystal Wood for being honored as one of the the top five finalists in Canada’s 2023 Total Mom Pitch competition. Among hundreds of applicants who are mothers involved in a cause worthy of pitching, Wood survived the cut that reduced applicants down to the top one hundred. She was elated when she learned she made the top five list with her cause, U Grow Girl, a company she co-founded with her sister-in-law, Leha Marshall. 

There are many layers to the U Grow Girl story, a company born out of heartache and tears as well as victory and celebration. In May 2023, Wood had a chance to share U Grow Girl’s mission and purpose live on stage before Total Mom Pitch judges and supporters. Their story is one the world needs to hear, which is precisely why Wood applied for the competition. She and Marshall want to raise awareness and provide help and healing for female childhood sexual abuse survivors, a mission that is at the heart of everything that U Grow Girl is involved in.   

Imagine Crystal Wood and Leha Marshall, sisters-in-law and close friends for several years, in one private heart-to-heart conversation, revealing they had both been sexually abused by family members when they were children. Wood and her daughters were temporarily living with her older brother and his family – Leha is her brother’s wife and like a sister to her. Sitting outdoors one night, talking through troubling thoughts and feelings, Wood revealed to Marshall – her paternal grandfather began sexually abusing her when she was five, and that abuse continued until she was almost 12 years old. For a couple of decades she had done her best to bury feelings and develop coping mechanisms that enabled her to motor through and survive life – until she couldn’t. “I felt like I was drowning,” says Wood. “I could not move forward without finding some form of healing from past trauma and its consequences. I knew I could not fix this on my own – I needed help.”

Wood’s honest admission created a safe space for Marshall to admit that she too had been sexually abused by an uncle and a cousin when she was a youngster. She kept these secrets hidden from all but a handful of trusted confidants and had no intention of ever going public about it. 

According to Marshall, “One in four women have experienced sexual abuse, but statistically 79% never report, so the number of survivors is likely even higher. There is so much shame and guilt that goes along with this, but through our healing journey, we discovered you can’t heal what you hide.”

Wood researched and tried any and every healing modality she could find, including traditional talk therapy, but it was not enough to address the shame, and it was not enough to truly heal from her pain. Almost out of hope Wood stumbled upon a free retreat for childhood sexual abuse survivors that was being offered by The Unique Foundation in Salt Lake City, Utah, now known as “Saprea.”

Wood sent in an application, which placed her on a first-come, first-served list, and three months later, she was on a plane from Canada to Utah, scared to death, but following a gut instinct that it was the next right step for her. 

The Unique Foundation retreat did not disappoint. She attended along with 24 survivors, divided into groups of 8. Post-arrival, her first class was on the topic of brain science, and as she began learning how her brain and thought processes had been affected by childhood trauma, she knew she had found the help she was looking for. The retreat was life-changing, and she returned home knowing what her purpose in life was, to bring retreats like this to survivors in Canada. It was not long before she enlisted her family in this mission and began looking for property that could be the homesite for this cause. 

“I remember having goose bumps when I first toured the farm that is now home to U Grow Girl and three generations of my family,” explains Wood. “My parents, Leha and my brother, Justin, and their children, and my children and I have homes on the property, and we are all involved in the operation of the business.”

U Grow Girl is the parent company for their Healing Blooms Garden and online store. Sixty percent of all floral and product sales goes to Time to Heal to cover retreat expenses and scholarships for applicants. Above all, their mission is to raise awareness and provide the opportunity for healing for female childhood sexual abuse survivors who are age 18 and older. Wood is adamant that the retreat must be offered free-of-charge to survivors. She calls it “a gift of healing,” which explains their decision to incorporate as a “C3,” Community Contribution Company, that functions as a hybrid between for-profit and nonprofit, legally enabling them to be a social enterprise, set up to support a social purpose.  

Without having expertise in horticulture or agriculture, Wood began researching ways they could make money to fund their cause. Prior to their ownership, the farm had been used to board horses, and it came complete with a beautiful horse barn large enough to house 26 horses. The fields had previously been used to produce hay for the equines they boarded, and for fifteen years prior to U Grow Girl taking ownership, great care had been taken to grow crops organically and chemical-free. 

Farming seemed like a natural answer to Wood’s question about fundraising. Wood and her family got busy planting haskap, which equated to getting on their hands and knees, planting 4,000 little seedlings that would become bushes. Haskap berries can be tart or sweet, depending on the variety, and U Grow Girl landed a faithful partner company, Shuswap Cider, that currently purchases their whole haskap crop for cider-making and and donates one dollar from every liter sold directly to the Time To Heal retreat. Their Haskap Berry Cider was just awarded a Gold medal at the Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition

Wood and Marshall then discovered that flowers are among the most lucrative crops per acre, so the next step was learning the ins and outs of flower farming. Marshall took on the role of Director of the Healing Blooms garden and educated herself on everything needed to become a profitable flower farm operation. Next was preparing a field for flower-growing. U Grow Girl hosted their third annual “Planting Party” in May 2023, inviting friends, family, previous attendees of the Time To Heal retreat, and community supporters. “It’s a beautiful atmosphere with lots of conversation, laughter, and sometimes tears, as people are sitting together on the ground, planting thousands of seeds,” says Wood. “Your hands are in the dirt, but people are connecting and having big conversations. Food and beverages are plentiful, music is playing in the background, and dogs are running around loose. It’s just such a cool thing for our community.”  

Early on, Wood and Marshall realized their acreage and operation is not substantial enough to meet the overwhelming need of their mission and cause. They expanded to offer online sales of floral bath salts, affirmation candles, toques, and tea, which they can ship almost anywhere. Their vision has grown even further as they are working to develop partnerships with flower growers in communities near and far, ensuring orders will be filled locally yet still contribute to scholarships and expenses for Time to Heal retreats.

According to Marshall, “Our retreats are currently held in a large waterfront home in Sorrento, B.C. with enough bedrooms for everyone. It is an intimate setting with a large living room, lots of couches, and plenty of seating.”

Wood adds, “We offer classes on brain science and education, interspersed with somatic release movement and yoga sessions. Scheduled talking sessions provide women with the opportunity to share and connect. They often form lasting friendships with fellow survivors, which leads to support beyond the retreat.”

Childhood sexual abuse survivors often suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, substance abuse, intimacy and sexual issues, teen pregnancy, depression, suicide, self-harm, and the list goes on. To fully support Time to Heal retreat attendees, Wood, Marshall, two team leaders, and the director, Dr. Pia Pechtel, a former faculty member of Harvard Medical School with a doctorate in Clinical Psychology, work with survivors throughout their five-day retreats..

The first Time to Heal retreat was held in October 2022, the second will be in November 2023, and they plan to host two retreats in 2024. When asked how people can support this worthy cause, Wood explains, “If you are reading this right now and our story touches your heart, if you are a survivor or know a survivor, we invite you to order our healing-inspired artisan goods online. With every purchase made, you become part of our mission, a small act of kindness that can have a huge positive impact on a survivor’s life. We dream of seeing our goods in your favorite local stores, enriching your community. So if you have a cherished local shop for artisan goods, speak to them about us, and spread our purpose. For those nestled in the Shuswap or Okanagan area, our flowers are calling for you. Through floral subscriptions, weddings, bereavements, special occasions or just for the pure joy of it – let our blooms brighten your home, all while supporting a cause so worthy of attention.” 

U Grow Girl is in the planning phase to build the Time To Heal Retreat Center on their 33-acre farm in Salmon Arm, B.C., and they intend to fill their 10,000 square foot horse barn with rescue horses and include equine-assisted therapy as part of the array of healing modalities offered to Time to Heal attendees. They are currently offering  sponsorship opportunities to organizations and businesses interested in supporting the creation of the retreat center.

Wood and Marshall describe U Grow Girl as high-elevation acreage at 2,200 feet above sea level, located in close proximity to a world class cross country ski hill. Snow remains on the ground longer than at lower elevations, but surprisingly they still have a long growing season. They have a tree-lined drive, massive weeping willow trees, a creek that runs through the property, and the farm offers clean, fresh air and the visual appeal of spaciousness with rows and rows of multi-colored peonies, dahlias, lavender, roses, and zinnias. 

Wood has posted several videos on YouTube to increase awareness about childhood sexual abuse and share her story with other survivors, and U Girl Grow posts regularly on Facebook and Instagram. They are building a community of survivors and supporters. According to Wood, “This is one of the most important parts of U Grow Girl. We need to make sure that survivors know they are not alone in this. We are here to support them.”

Sexual abuse is every loving parent’s worst nightmare, yet it truly takes all hands on deck, a village of loving, caring eyes, to keep children safe. Authorities on the subject report that abusers are often someone a child knows rather than strangers. One thing we can all do is educate ourselves and our children on this subject. Relatives, educators, childcare providers, neighbors, and friends must continue to do our best to safeguard little ones entrusted to our care. We can learn to ask better questions, become more trustworthy listeners, and watch for signs of trouble in the children within our circle. 

U Grow Girl’s work in offering healing to childhood sexual abuse survivors is mission-critical. This truly is a social cause, worthy of our worldwide community’s attention, resources, and help.