Like Minsteracres itself, Let’s Get Growing, the social enterprise company which offers outdoor-based therapeutic activity in the Peace Garden, relies on volunteers to help it deliver its much valued programme. Here, Dianne Keetch explains how she was drawn to help:

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 who 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 fulfil 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 redwoods 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, Casper, 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 new Sanctuary in the Peace Garden. It is a wooden meeting space with turf roof, recycled water, wood burning stove and compost toilet. Oh yes, it has a lot of green credentials 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?