If you go down to the woods today …

20th May 2015

Blog by Gabe Fulford, Manager FitzRoy Rural Skills

Tucked away in the hills of the beautiful Meon Valley, in the Sustainability Centre, ancient trees and shrubs provide sanctuary for a small but creative enterprise called Rural Skills. At first glance you might think the people working here are a group of conservationists, or community gardeners. Look carefully however and you will see some of them are being supported, often in subtle ways, by others. You will see that the people who have created this rural sanctuary, all have learning disabilities.

A flourishing enterprise
This FitzRoy service is a lifeline for many. Everyone who comes learns skills, builds connections, works in a team, and has a place outside they can call their own. It was just a bare patch of land over four years ago when the service started. Since then it has been turned into a place of beauty and productivity. As a group they decide what they’re going to grow and build each year, and all the work that needs to be done on site is carried out by them. They not only choose to plant say carrots; they grow them, dig them, clean them, chop them, and then cook them on our open fire, or sell them. They look after chickens, and sell their eggs. They make bird boxes, bug boxes, and other woodcraft, all popular items for sale, and all the money they make goes straight back into the project.

Huge health benefits
It has become clear that without Rural Skills many of the people that come here could be at much greater risk of mental health problems. One guy, who joined us over four years ago, who suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder, was previously house-bound over the dark months. Through Rural Skills he is occupied and stimulated, both mentally and physically, and he hasn’t missed a single day, whatever the weather.

Another, who joined us a few years ago wouldn’t speak when he arrived. He was extremely shy and quiet, now you can’t stop him talking. This happens a lot. Being outside in this kind of environment seems to free people up to be more confident. We have people who’ve had problems with behavioural issues in other services who fit in easily here. The exercise has huge benefits too. They plant, and dig, and build things, often working hard for up to four hours a day, releasing endorphins and getting fit.

All the activities are geared around their needs and one of the best things is seeing them reach their potential and doing things they thought impossible. This really is a special place, and the more we are able to invest in this kind of project the greater rewards we will see for people with learning disabilities.