Moving the yardstick
A city farm in one of the UK’s most disadvantaged areas is giving young people new confidence. Matt Timms looks at how masonic funding is supporting its vision to transform lives
St Werburghs in Bristol was almost totally overrun with crime in the 1980s after floods forced residents to vacate their homes. Locals recall how the fields became a dumping ground and once-prize allotments grew wild and untamed. Determined to regain some semblance of togetherness, they put a request in to the council for the land. But it wasn’t until sheep were introduced that the community started to properly re-energise.
St Werburghs City Farm has now been improving prospects for people living in the area for 30 years. The two-acre smallholding, one-acre community garden, two-and-a-half-acre conservation site and 13 acres of allotments have become the beating heart of the community. A place that once looked beyond help is thriving and a £38,125 grant awarded by the Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF) will allow the surrounding communities to grow still further.
Situated in the Bristol ward of Ashley, alongside four others that are among the 10 per cent most disadvantaged in the UK, St Werburghs City Farm provides practical, outdoor and therapeutic opportunities for permanently excluded and disengaged young people.
‘Each year, we support hundreds of causes, including those that provide employment opportunities for young people who are not in education, employment or training,’ says Katrina Baker, Head of Charity Grants at the MCF. ‘We decided to support St Werburghs City Farm because it engages, equips and empowers young people with the confidence and capacity to transform their lives.’
According to Alex, a 17-year-old participant in the farm’s Work2Learn placement scheme, ‘If anyone is in Bristol and they’re having a tough time, they should come to St Werburghs.’ Alex is just one of an estimated 704 people aged 14-19 – most of whom are struggling in mainstream education – who will benefit from the support the farm provides over the next three years thanks to the MCF grant. ‘The people here are my second family,’ he says. ‘We feel equal.’
Now into his third year on the farm, Alex had considered becoming a chef, a train driver and even joining the army, but a love of the outdoors, together with his experiences at St Werburghs, opened his eyes to the joys of farming. ‘Sometimes you just get the feeling you’ll be good at a job,’ he says. His time at St Werburghs has not only given him vital experience, it’s also boosted his confidence.
The farm’s youth development manager, Anna Morrow, has seen Alex and countless others change for the better as a result of the youth programme. ‘When things fall apart, that one day out a week can make all the difference – enough for them to be able to cope,’ she says.
‘St Werburghs City Farm engages, equips and empowers young people with the confidence and capacity to transform their lives’ Katrina Baker
Max, also 17, believes his time at St Werburghs has helped him in life: ‘Being here has shown me about teamwork. There will be some people you get on with, some you don’t, but that’s life and you have to accept that.’ For Max, interacting with people on the farm has exposed him to a world outside mainstream education and given him opportunities he otherwise might not have had. His mother has noticed a marked improvement in Max’s moods, and firmly believes he has benefited socially from having other adults to talk to.
Morrow recalls a 14-year-old young carer who used his placement to overcome problems at school, mostly to do with aggression. ‘He was doing everything at home: cooking, cleaning, taking the parent role,’ she says. ‘All that was taking its toll.’ Starting at just one morning a week, his experience at St Werburghs made such a difference that he ended up helping out three days a week and eventually went on to gain an apprenticeship in farming.
For young people living on the perimeters of society, schools are limited in how they can address complex personal issues, so having a place like the city farm can be a lifeline. ‘It’s all about relationships,’ says Beth Silvey, a youth worker at the farm. ‘Participants get to do things they’d never get to do anywhere else. And I think that builds trust. It’s a nurturing environment and they are very much part of the team. It’s a group activity that isn’t intense, so they talk to us. It’s like a family here.’
Growing a community
Personal development, self-esteem and support networks aside, an equally important aspect of the farm’s work is improved community cohesion, particularly in an area where so many young people live below the poverty line. More than half of children are living in income-deprived households in three areas within walking distance of the farm.
The thinking behind the project is clear: if you catch anxieties at an early stage then you’re able to address issues before they balloon out of control. ‘It’s really important,’ says Silvey, ‘it can tip the balance at a crucial time. And we wouldn’t be able to do that without the money from the Masonic Charitable Foundation.’
Thanks to the MCF grant and a new building, the farm has been able to extend all its work placements and start a new enterprise project. With the continued support of the MCF and the proud members of the community, St Werburghs City Farm has become an invaluable asset in bettering the situation facing young people in the area.
‘People come here because they’re accepted,’ says Max, who has himself been witness to some extraordinary stories. ‘The people are just nice; no one is bothered by difference.’ And in an area that continues to suffer from poverty, having a place that is very much loved and embraced by the community is crucial.