For Solidarity: Can you tell us how Scotswood Garden came about? What need in the local community is it addressing?
Karen: As a charity we aim to inspire learning about nature, the environment and sustainable living, and, at the same time, have a positive impact on people’s health and wellbeing. Scotswood and Benwell is an area of Newcastle upon Tyne that has high levels of multiple deprivation, the garden was established in 1995 to provide a much needed safe green space for local people to use. Our charitable object and the reason we exist is ‘to maintain a public garden for the use and benefit of inhabitants of the north east region in the interest of social welfare with the object of improving conditions of life for people and to enhance people’s knowledge and understanding of the environment and sustainability.’
For Solidarity: Who is involved in the project? What is the organisation’s structure?
Karen: There are five core strands of work and so we have different staff to manage the different strands. There are twelve, mostly part time, staff members –equivalent to 9½ full time and 52 regular volunteers.
For Solidarity: Can you tell us a bit more about the different strands of activity that happen at the garden?
Karen: First is our Volunteering and Training Placement strand. We generally have between 15-25 volunteers coming in up to 3 days a week through the Growing Together programme. Some of our volunteers have been unemployed for a substantial amount of time and are looking for support to help them get back into employment, others may be socially isolated, have long term mental health conditions, learning difficulties or other additional needs which we can offer support with. We have three staff that work outside in the garden supporting the volunteer team. The staff are trained in therapeutic horticulture and, particularly support people’s mental health and wellbeing needs.
We have an older people’s strand, which is for people who are over 55. Through our Elderberries Project we have 15 older people volunteering with us. They work alongside the main volunteering programme, but we use, as needed, adapted tools and tasks are tailored to suit individual needs. As part of the Elderberries Programme, we also run monthly sessions that people can drop in and out of. These are often art-based activities in the garden such as painting or printing workshops. We also go on trips to other gardens and places of interests. We also run a gardening for dementia programme for people who are living with dementia and their carers. It’s very much a therapeutic programme which is about helping people to make social connections and have positive experiences in a safe space. Many of the people we work with have previously had gardens or allotments, we enable them to get outside to reconnect with those skills.
For Solidarity: Do you do any work with younger people?
Karen: Yes we do. The third strand is Education and Training which is delivered by two highly skilled staff. BREEZE is a programme for children and young people who struggle with mainstream education. It involves weekly Forest School sessions that aim to improve the children’s emotional wellbeing and ultimately aims to help them to re-engage with the education process. The children will come one day a week for a full academic year. Alongside that, we are training the school staff in Forest School practice and supporting them to develop their school grounds so that they can continue delivering Forest Schools beyond the end of the project. Schools and parents have reported big changes in the first year of the programme already, we worked with a research associate from Newcastle University to evaluate the impact of BREEZE the full report is available on our website.
We also have a school visits programme, Wildlife Superheroes, run by our Education Officer. Last year we worked with just over 1000 children from different schools coming in to do different workshops with a focus on sustainability and protecting and improving habitats for wildlife. We go on to support the schools to do ‘wildlife rescue tasks’ within their school grounds after their visits.
Our fourth strand is our Youth Programme with four different youth groups involving young people from age 5 up to 18. We do a huge range of activities with the groups based on their interests including: Duke of Edinburgh, outdoor education, camping, music making, Forest School activities and trips. We have an art and music garden on a Saturday for children with disabilities to come with their friends and family.
Last but by no means least, is the Outreach and Communities strand of our work. We run four big community open days each year from the garden, offering lots of free activities on for families to access. We also do one or two other community projects each year. For example, last year we developed a meadow in Benwell. We also run Woodland Warriors which is about getting local people into Denton Dene, which is another local green space, and encouraging people in the community to take ownership of that space through planting, litter picking and having big open days.
I think that covers most things. It sounds so much when I talk about it like that!
For Solidarity: Yes, it does! I can tell you are holding a lot. I think what we are finding is this essential connection between the environmental and ecological aspects with the social and the health and wellbeing. It sounds like this is completely integrated throughout your projects.
Karen: Yes, there is so much evidence now about the impact of being outdoors on people’s health and wellbeing. All our projects really have a wellbeing focus somewhere within them.
For Solidarity: : With all that amazing work going on, what challenges are you facing at the moment and what is it that keeps you going?
Karen: Our main challenge is probably the same for most charities, and that is funding. It’s a constant cycle of applying for grants, maintaining relationships with funders and reporting and evaluating and so on. That’s a big challenge. We are lucky that we have a fantastic member of staff that particularly focusses on securing grants, writing applications and maintaining those relationships but it is hard work. One of the things that we have been focussing on is improving our trading income, so that we can become more self-sufficient.
For Solidarity: : Oh yes, I’ve seen your jams and chutneys at local markets. They look delicious!
Karen: Beyond that, our biggest challenge is our building. We have a lovely 2.5-acre garden which meets our needs but because we have expanded our programme in response to the level of need in the community, our building really is not sufficient. We have only one very small shared space that fits 15 adults very uncomfortably. As I said, most days we will have up to 20 volunteers in and often 30 school children as well, and sometimes another 15 young people doing Forest School and that is just an average day! Once the weather becomes more inclement there is just not enough indoor space to accommodate all our activities. At the moment, we are working with an architect to look at putting an extension on the site which will hopefully address all the issues we have around lack of space. The building is also about futureproofing the organisation because it is going to give us more trading opportunities. It will enable to run more courses, have catering options through a commercial kitchen and much more.
For Solidarity: : I can see that would make a huge difference. Is that one of the main things you are looking forward to?
Karen: Yes, but I think what I am looking forward to most is seeing how we are constantly developing as an organisation and looking at what the needs are that we are not meeting in the community. In the last 3-4 years we have worked very hard to build up a good reputation by delivering very strong projects with strong evaluation processes, but I think that it is really important as an organisation that we don’t stand still, that we are not stale, that we are constantly striving to be better.
For Solidarity: : The theme of the map is about the solidarity economy and ideas of working in solidarity with each other. What does solidarity mean in your work? Who are you working with and how do you build solidarity together?
Karen: As an organisation we constantly listen to our community and the people we are working with. For example, we have a Youth Forum, a Volunteers Forum and an Older Peoples Forum that that all feed back into our board meetings. All the ideas and the work we do comes from the people in the community. I think it is really important that we listen, and we are giving people what they want. It’s not about what we think, it’s about everybody working together. Also, we work with other local community organisations and charities very closely through a group called COBS (Community Organisations in Benwell and Scotswood). This is to make sure that we are delivering for everybody, that we are working together, that we are sharing good practice, and we are referring people to different services.
For Solidarity: : How does that work? How do you communicate across the COBS group?
Karen: We have meetings every 8 weeks which are attended by the organisation heads or people from the management teams that can make decisions. We set our agendas based on what our service users have said as well as things we know are important in the area. We also have a group email system so we can communicate outside of those meetings. We support each other on social media which shows that we are all speaking with the same voice. So for example, we recently worked together as a group to apply to become a Dementia Friendly community in Benwell and Scotswood. It’s all about us working together so that the whole community becomes dementia friendly including local shops and other organisations.
For Solidarity: : What you said about listening and not assuming you know what people want is really important.
Karen:: Yes, some of our best projects have come about from what our volunteers and community have said they want.
For Solidarity: : What we are hoping to do is create links across the map with initiatives different or similar. I was wondering I you had any advice for others who are working in a similar way or trying to get something off the ground?
Karen:: I’d say listen to the community, listen to your service users, listen to people and find out what they actually want. Don’t just assume that you know what people want. That is probably the best bit of advice. Also, speak to other organisations in the area because they might be able to tell you what the gaps are and if the perceived need is actually there.
For Solidarity: : That’s very sound advice, thank you.