Joe Cobarrubio didn’t work at GrowGood farm, but GrowGood worked on him when he lived at the Salvation Army Bell shelter.

“Oh my God, the garden is what helped maintain my sanity,” Cobarrubio says. “If it wasn’t for the garden, I would have left the shelter.”

Cobarrubio says that shortly after he arrived at the shelter from UCLA Harbor Hospital, in August 2016, he happened upon GrowGood – which, although it’s just across the parking lot from the shelter can be a little hidden. He noticed trees and people and came through the fence.

Cobarrubio , now 63, came with his hand in a bandage, and left “with a big smile” after farmer Corinne McAndrews told him he was welcome anytime.

McAndrews remembers the encounter, too.

“I saw a man coming towards me, from out of the field and the drainage basin, carrying a bushel of wildflowers.  He was bandaged up pretty well, as he had recently been admitted to the healthcare part of the shelter with a rare flesh-eating bacteria,” she recalls.

“When I asked about the flowers, he told me that taking long walks to pick wildflowers has been a hobby of his since he was young. I was a little surprised he was making the trek in his current health condition, but he assured me that he knew what he was doing. I instantly knew that we would be good friends.  It must have been his warmth, his sweet smile, and his generosity as he handed me some Mexican sunflowers.”  

Cobarrubio, courteous and kind and smart, became well-known at the farm for his artistry with found branches that he turned into elegant walking sticks that plenty of people who show up at GrowGood now use.

“I’m an artist at heart,” says Cobarrubio, who has a smattering of freckles and a Fu Manchu-style moustache.

Already retired from a career in construction, he started making the canes to keep busy and to restore the strength to hands and arms. And the tools he needed were not allowed in the shelter. So the picnic tables at GrowGood became his workshop.

And for everyone else, Cobarrubio’s presence became a source of joy and interesting conversation. That includes Daryl, McAndrew’s dog who happily joined Cobarrubio on walks and sat at his feet.

He often brought his lunch to the garden and stayed the afternoon. 

He vowed that he “was not going back to where I was living and what made me homeless.” Before the hospital, he had a rough run. He lost his right index finger in an accident working on his mother’s house and then his hand was smashed in another mishap. He had no feeling in the hand and finally ended up in am ambulance.

But it turned out that his real health scare turned out to be a flesh-eating disease on his side; it put him into a coma, prompted the loss of 80 pounds and left a dramatic scar.

“The doctor told me, ‘You are the luckiest man I’ve seen. The person who called 911 saved your life,” Cobarubio says. That person was a friend’s girlfriend.

A high school wrestler and football player, and a drummer, Cobarrubio gave up college and music to help support his family when his father got cancer. 

He had started playing music at 7 and “practiced all the time.” His parents supported his music, even when he wasn’t very good. “I don’t know how my parents put up with it,” Cobarrubio says.

Perhaps they knew how much practice it takes to develop proficiency. “They danced swing like you wouldn’t believe,” and often would bring the band home with them when the clubs closed. Everyone would jam till dawn.

In that atmosphere, Cobarrubio became good enough that he started getting fill-in work while still a schoolboy.

But that’s also how he began getting high – in cars during band breaks.  Cobarrubio says he came close three times to making it as a musician, but drugs got in his way.

Work did, too. By 28 he had a wife, two kids, a dog and house with a picket fence. Their marriage eventually broke up, and after 14 years clean, Cobarrubio returned to drugs. “Like every drug addict, you go back to where you left off.”

But by the time he was taken away in that ambulance, Cobarrubio had been clean for a week and was determined to stay that way. 

On the gurney outside the ambulance, he says, “I knew I was right at death’s door. I said, ‘Lord I don’t want to go like this.’”

And he did not.

Early this year, Cobarrubio moved to his own apartment, in Long Beach. He cooks for himself, and often for his neighbors. He has become close to his younger sister and her daughter.

On a visit to GrowGood recently, he says, “It’s like I’m coming home.”


Joe Cobarrubio says tacos were his favorite meal as a child, and here' s how his mother made them. With rice and bean to accompany them.

  • Brown a pound of ground beef with chopped onion, and salt and pepper to taste.
  • Fry a dozen corn tortillas, and place them on a tray. Top with the cooked beef and chopped tomatoes. Add shredded jack cheese and shredded lettuce.
  • Meanwhile, melt a chunk of bacon fat in a pan, add cooked pinto beans and cook well. Mash, add a little water and add cheese to taste.
  • For the Spanish rice, cook 1 cup of rice in two cups of water. When the rice is done, add tomato sauce and cook over low heat till the sauce is soaked into the rice.

by Mary MacVean