Minsteracres’ three key objectives of providing nurture for the spirit, care for the earth, and help to those on the margins all come together in the Peace Garden.
Under the direction of Ross Menzies and Katrina Padmore of Let’s Get Growing who manage the garden, is a group of dedicated volunteers. Between them they help the participants of the therapeutic gardening scheme, as well as supporting groups brought to the garden by the outreach team.
Here is what a number of them have said about why they volunteer:
Years ago in the first week of retirement I joined the Peace Garden as a volunteer. I still tell everyone it’s the most inspirational project I’ve ever been involved with and I’ve been involved with a great many in my time.
The days vary according to the weather, the season and the participants, but every day starts and ends the same with tea, coffee, refreshments and chat and with the circle in which everyone has the chance to talk and be listened to in turn. I love that even the quiet and shy get to talk and even the people who struggle with words and language manage to speak with help.
Every day I see how much it means to people that they are heard in respectful and affectionate silence. Every day also is punctuated by a lovely fresh, home cooked lunch which everyone comes to enthusiastically after a morning in the fresh air. The rest of the time we garden, walk in the beautiful countryside, sow seeds, make jams, chutneys, cordials from the garden produce and lip balms and ointments from the herb garden, chat, sing songs, play games and a take part in a host of other activities which people enjoy. The common theme in our activities is that they enrich the lives of our participants and provide enjoyment and interest and company in lives which are challenging and often difficult. We use the garden and the beautiful surroundings in whatever ways we can to bring people pleasure.
In everything we do, the most important thing is how we do it. Every participant is valued for their individuality and their their part in the day. We try to enrich the lives of everyone who comes and we work hard to promote really good relationships between everyone. It all sounds too good to be true, but it really isn’t.
Of course, the enjoyment is there every bit as much for me as a volunteer. I don’t do this through gritted teeth, or at no benefit to myself. Like the participants, my life is also wonderfully enriched by being part of the Peace Garden. It can be difficult and tiring at times and occasionally frustrating, but I go home at the end of the day with the same sense of satisfaction and joy as I see on the faces of the participants.
I volunteer at the Peace Garden project which gives me so much joy. We support people with dementia, learning difficulties, emotional difficulties etc. The clients all have very specific needs and gardening and being outdoors with nature helps so much to give them mental stimulus and to ease suffering. Being together as a team enables the clients to feel a sense of belonging. Gardening means they can do physical work at their own pace, talk as we work and make valuable contributions to the project.
By connecting together at the start and end of each day, having a drink and talking, we are able to glean where each person is in their life and to offer support as necessary. The project co-ordinators, Katrina and Ross and all the volunteers work remarkably well as a team to offer support and guidance for our clients. All are well qualified for this task.
It is also amazing being part of the community at Minsteracres and sharing the love which emanates from within. This love permeates everything we do in the Peace Garden.
How can I get rid of these jam jars? My friends would say I am a bit obsessed with recycling, but I try very hard to put as little in landfill as I can. Having amassed a juggernaut of jam jars I decided to give them away on freecycle.
The lovely woman that came to pick them up told me they were for the Let’s Get Growing, a therapeutic gardening group at Minsteracres. Aha! Now was my chance, I had been passing the retreat centre on my way to and from work in Durham and was sorely tempted to skip work, catapult up the drive and gawp at those majestic trees. The jam jar woman turned out to be a relative of someone who attended the group. She said it’s for people who benefit from being in the outdoors, growing food, and supporting each other. They make jam too. “Do they want any volunteers?” I cried.
Many people decide to retire early and it is often as a result of significant life change. My own ill health had led me to leave work early, my family life changed too and I knew I would go stir crazy if I did not feel engaged in something important. I had joined a choir and volunteer at Citizens Advice and was looking for something further that would fulfill some of my own needs.
The day I met the ‘Let’s Get Growing’ group was memorable. I found myself sighing as I drove through the red woods to the retreat house. The trees seem to hold you and help you breathe. The house and grounds are splendid too, it is a gift to be welcomed there.
The group were meeting in the library. I received a friendly introduction to everyone, but I wasn’t quite sure who was who. It quickly became clear that it didn’t matter, it is a fun filled group of people who come together for a variety of personal reasons and everyone gains something from membership, volunteers included.
Having worked extensively in the public and voluntary sectors I know how hard it is to ensure people enjoy themselves and get what they need in group settings. There are usually lots of rules, regulations and processes that get in the way. Of course people need to be safe and cared for, but the therapeutic gardening group is managed in such a gentle, involving way that each individual feels that they belong and that they have much to offer.
We do work hard as a group, and raise some very fine fruit and vegetables. The Peace Garden is large and well tended. I can recommend the club sized parsnips and delicious cherry tomatoes. We get to take some home, yum yum, supply the retreat house and sell some too. We plant, nurture, gather and cook the food we grow. There is a simple, natural cycle to it that appeals to me. I enjoy taking my dog, to the garden; he loves the woods, takes a plunge bath in the pond and seems to look forward to seeing his canine and human chums.
When the weather is too bad we retreat to our beautiful wooden Sanctuary in the Peace Garden. It is a meeting space with turf roof, recycled water, wood burning stove and compost toilet. Oh yes, it has a lot of green credential but we all agree it is a lovely calming place to be. There is something for everyone there. We make crazy colourful scarecrows, sow seeds, and make cordials, jams and marmalade. We paint everything that doesn’t move, the curtains, the walls and the scarecrows’ dresses. Well, now I come to think about it, the dogs get painted too.
So what do I get out of being a volunteer with Let’s Get Growing?
Love… Love brings me back time and again. The love of the garden and growing our own food, love of the elements and the land, love of the birds and animals, love of cooking and crafting from nature, but most of all it is the love of the people in the group, the love they give me and the love I feel in return.
What more could you wish for?
I’ve been volunteering at the Peace Garden for most of the time since it began as part of a rough grazing field to be transformed in the space of six years to the beautiful and productive haven that it is today.
It’s been very rewarding to help develop the garden and to see the benefit it brings to the groups who have used it. I’ve been a volunteer helper with the garden therapy project over five years and always look forward to coming. As well as being outdoors in the most beautiful and peaceful surroundings and working in the open air when weather permits, there is great satisfaction in seeing the benefits to the therapy project’s clients.
The idea behind the project is inspired. The clients come with varied needs but this seems to work incredibly well, probably because it is more typical of normal life than being in a group for specific needs. For example, people with dementia might otherwise be mixing with people with similar problems, especially if they are in residential care, but here they are in a group with people of all ages. A highlight for me is seeing how supportive and caring the young people (several of whom have learning difficulties) are with the older clients, and hearing the chatter of a mixed group relaxing in the sun. We have a lot of fun and laughter! It has also been fantastic to see the younger members expressing and developing their creative skills (such as art and photography) and growing in confidence.
Another lovely aspect of the project is that fellow volunteers/helpers have become friends, and we support each other spontaneously by working throughout the day with different clients. This is nice for the clients too, I’m sure.
I also appreciate the relaxed nature of the group, that both clients and volunteers can do what they are able to do and are comfortable with. There is no ‘job description’ for the volunteer; just to be aware of people’s needs/safety and do what you can to make their day stress-free and enjoyable. All the volunteers bring different things to the project – some love digging and maintenance, some know a lot about plants, some are very creative and come up with lovely indoor activities for wet days.
I’ve also appreciated that the organisers, Ross and Katrina, are so understanding and flexible if volunteers need to have time off. Not being on a rota where I feel I must turn up whatever happens, is unusual even for a voluntary job. With minor health problems of my own that lack of pressure is a big plus.
It is sometimes sad when an older client can no longer be part of the project due to illness or frailty, but also satisfying to know that they have had an enjoyable time in the months or years they’ve been with us. It’s also great when we occasionally meet the families of clients and hear just how much they benefit as well.
But I think one of the best things is that although we are a separate, non-religious project, we are made to feel very welcome at Minsteracres. The community and staff always make time for a cheery word with us, and are very patient with the frailer clients. I sometimes have to remind myself that this is not my actual church because I feel so much part of it.
One final bonus – the delicious home-cooked lunches, and – the puddings!!!