New Growth project helps people to put down roots

Thriving or Surviving: This week we look at the New Growth horticultural project in Marlay Park, Rathfarnham, in Dublin


Part two of our ‘Surviving or Thriving’ series looks at innovative community health projects. Part two: New growth project.   

Adults with mild intellectual disabilities or mental health problems often live their lives on the edges of society. Whether still living in the family home or living in supported accommodation, their sense of belonging to the world of work can be limited.

Training opportunities are often difficult to access and open employment even more challenging.

Social and community enterprises, such as the New Growth horticultural project in Marlay Park, Rathfarnham, Dublin, are reaching out to these people who might otherwise be forgotten about.

“The people who work here have fallen through the cracks in the system,” says Ciarán Burke, the founder of the New Growth Project. “They might be too old for the Job Bridge scheme [the national internship scheme which provides work experiences for unemployed people]. They might find form-filling difficult or they might have mental health problems or other difficulties.”

Burke runs a gardening school from the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland (RHSI) headquarters in the beautifully restored Laurelmere in Marlay Park. He runs the New Growth Project as a social enterprise in parallel with his horticultural training courses.

“The RHSI gives us the [administration] facilities and we have access to parts of the walled gardens and planting areas in Marlay Park for this work,” Burke says.

Various organisations

People who join the courses at the New Growth Project are referred from various organisations including Care After Prison and Walk, a social enterprise in Walkinstown, Dublin which supports the employment of people with intellectual disabilities in Dublin and Louth.

“Gardening is the tool that brings people out and interacting with each other. The course can either enable someone to go back to their area of work after a period of unemployment or to move on to other horticultural training,” says Burke. The key is that there is no obvious form of assessment throughout the course. “Sometimes we can assess people’s work without them realising it. There is no pressure on anyone and nobody will fail the course. Some will complete it in 12 weeks while others will need to do a number of courses.”

On a sunny morning, volunteers and course participants are busy planting seedlings or preparing the vegetable plots in the walled garden at Marlay Park. Mixing people with and without disabilities may sound challenging, but Burke says it helps everyone learn more about each other.

“It makes the whole group less selfish and breaks down barriers. It makes people very patient with each other. When people with autism work alongside other people without autism, it helps everyone learn about each other.”

Frieda Kavanagh from Clonskeagh is six weeks into the course. “I’m planting potatoes. I don’t like the manure but I like the flowers,” she says.

Flowers are planted around the vegetable beds for the bees. The participants take home the vegetables for their own use.

Ronan Howard from Rathfarnham is weeding the beds in preparation for sowing. “I like the fresh air and learning about things and meeting new people. I get restless during the day but I like the variety of what we do here,” he says.

Marc McKeon is on his third course at the New Growth Project. “It’s good to be outside. I don’t like computers and I hate typing. It stresses me out. I was bored on my own all week so I’m enjoying this,” he says.

Darragh Smith and Thomas Coyle were both referred to the New Growth project by Walk. “I like to help with the weeding and planting the seeds,” says Smith. “I like sowing and watering the seeds,” says Coyle.

After unemployment

Others have joined the project after a period of unemployment. Derek Thomas was made redundant from his job in banking operations 4½ years ago. “When I was first made redundant, I did a business and innovation level 8 course at Dublin City University but no job came out of it. I like my garden but didn’t know enough about it, so I decided to do the course.”

After 12 weeks, Thomas moved on to a higher level horticulture course but he continues to volunteer on the project.

“I had no previous experience working with people with disabilities so the first few weeks were strange as some talk, some don’t and some talk too much,” Thomas says.

“It has been a good learning curve for me. It makes you more tolerant of others.”

Gerry Moore was referred to the New Growth Project from the Care After Prison programme, based in Dublin city centre. Moore spent three months out of his nine- month sentence for handling stolen goods in Shelton Abbey Prison in Co Wicklow.

“I came back into society with the support of Care After Prison. I do the heavy work in the gardens here. I don’t bother anybody. I also help out in the gardening project on York Street, where prisoners are on day release from Mountjoy Prison.”

Views from organisations that help people on the margins of society find work: 

Catherine Kelly is the director of services at Walk, a social enterprise which supports adults with disabilities access work and training. “People with disabilities can find it difficult to access courses in areas that they are interested in. The New Growth project allows them to have a relationship with nature. It provides sensory stimulation and a place to be calm. “For some people, it is a stepping stone to education and work in horticulture. Walk also runs The Green Kitchen, a cafe and garden in Walkinstown, where people with disabilities work.” Elaine Nevin is the director of Eco-Unesco, which offers employment and training to unemployed young people aged 16-25.

“Our green youth employment programme helps marginalised young people to value themselves and to feel that they can contribute to society. They develop confidence, self-esteem and self-belief when they partake in courses ranging from sustainable and community development to ecology and horticulture. “We also help them to find work placements after the courses and some move on to further education.” Jill Carey is the chief executive of Festina Lente, which offers horticultural training course to people with disabilities. “Each year, groups of young people affected by socio-economic disadvantage take up their positions as young gardeners in the Festina Lente allotments. “Not only do these young people learn how to plan and harvest their own vegetables, they also develop a strong sense of pride and achievement.

“Their connection with nature is particularly significant as our world becomes much more urbanised.”

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