Monday, 22 August 2016

VOLUNTEERING AT THE FOREST GARDEN

Guest post by Stuart Bullen


As someone who’d done some volunteering in the dim and distant past I had been feeling that I should get involved in something similar for a while. I wanted to use my background and interest in all things environmental and geographical, so I made the initial step of contacting the excellent ‘Active Student’ volunteering team here at the University of Brighton, to enquire about their Staff Volunteering Scheme. This allows staff the opportunity to undertake up to five days volunteering per year at a suitable local community group. I asked them to highlight possible eco opportunities for me.

I was after a bit of a different experience from my role as an SSGT (or Student Support & Guidance Tutor) in the Brighton Business School. This student focused job, although wonderful, is primarily office based so I wanted to get my hands dirty, quite literally smell the roses and perhaps ‘give something back’, as the saying goes, to the local area and community.

Of the many local possibilities I was most tempted by the Moulsecoomb Forest Garden & Wildlife Project. It’s website and history did a good job of convincing me this was the place to head for my earthly delights ! A quick form completed, a few formalities at the university and all was set. 

I volunteered for a total of three days (one each in April, June and July) at this project, which is based just behind the Moulsecoomb railway station and University of Brighton campus. You wouldn’t believe, once you’re there and immersed in your restorative outdoor work, that you’re near such a hubbub of life and action, such is the tranquil nature of the site.

There is something calming, Zen-like and, indeed, good for the soul about being in such an environment. The site is a large one which is set into quite a hill, so the view from the amazing, genuinely eco-building at the top is a great one. It is a place of peace, solitude, communal working and, (vitally) it has to be said, good food Yes, this wasn’t uppermost in my thoughts - for once ! - but this has been a real bonus of the days. Jo, Daisy and their able helpers have churned out amazing, nutritious and tasty food (much of it grown and harvested from the allotments at the site), which they provide for the hordes of workers who’ve toiled that day at the Project.

The tasks that I undertook during my few days there included turning over soil and preparing areas for planting seeds, herbs and squashes and clearing path areas of troublesome weeds, in addition to helping out with serving food and clearing up after delicious lunches!

What I found most rewarding and positive from the three days was working with a real diversity of other volunteers and service users. These included a group of foreign students who’d volunteered via a local organisation named Concordia and many local people with varying additional needs, who use the project regularly with their key workers as a place to meet and develop their social/practical skills.

I hope that it has helped the project to have some extra hands and someone to muck in whilst I have been there and I also feel that it is positive for the University of Brighton, to have current links with such a close by and valuable organisation as the Forest Garden Project. It is a community based model, with links to schools and other groups – such as the Brighton & Hove Food Partnership, a very worthwhile local organisation. This seems to be a fine example of excellent partnership work, much of which occurs under the radar of most of our daily lives.

In terms of my own role and practise, it certainly has been beneficial to me to meet and work collectively with a diversity of other people in the local community, and I’ve returned energised and with a real sense of context and perspective to my SSGT post. I have made some useful contacts and further developed my knowledge of local service provision. Similarly, a number of students from the university undertaken voluntary work or participate in community based placements at the Project, and no doubt reflect upon similar personal development and skills growth as a result of this.

The Project has been on Radio 4, won awards and been nominated as a mayoral charity locally. It is clearly a successful and well-loved resource, which has been covered in many articles (see below). I have nothing but admiration for the dedication, compassion and energy shown by the myriad groups and people involved in the work on the hill behind the station, go and see the magic for yourselves !

As Warren Carter, the Garden Project Manager, who helped set up the site over 20 years ago put it…

Our project isn’t just about gardening. It plays an important part of the social glue that binds communities together, with all types of people, young and old, pupils having problems at school, people with learning difficulties, working together in a safe, pleasant, genuinely inclusive environment”