I was incredibly moved after visiting a Thrive project taking place at a hostel for homeless women with mental ill health in London.
Having worked at Thrive for seven years I've never been more struck by the brilliance of an STH (http://www.thrive.org.uk/what-is-social-and-therapeutic-horticulture.aspx) programme. In a matter of hours I could clearly see the benefits of how gardening with a horticultural therapist was helping some very vulnerable women.
Lu, the therapist leading the programme is amazing with these women. They have all been homeless and have a mental health issue. Some are on methadone and other medication, most have extremely low self-esteem and self-worth. Life has dealt them blow after blow and they can’t, at the moment, seem to bounce back.
It’s a difficult group of women, not difficult in the sense that they have an agenda or want to get one over on each other, difficult because they all have different emotional needs and require support, kindness and time to recover after living on the streets. They undoubtedly have trust issues and in the past would have had to fend for themselves, why would anyone show them kindness? There’s also an issue with authority, some will be known to the police, the local hospitals, so Lu has to be particularly patient and understanding. She is though, simply brilliant at motivating the ladies to get into the garden and does this by applying little or no pressure, naturally creating a sense of curiosity in these ladies.
The group doesn’t start until 10:30, but some people don’t join in until nearly mid-day. That doesn’t matter; people are coming and choosing to do so. They want to be in the garden, be with other people, learn about plants and growing food. Talking about their problems when pruning a rose is cathartic. Lu just listens, she’s not a counsellor, they have them at the hostel, one of the ladies says sitting in front of a counsellor is not for her. The garden is a great place to talk. Lu would use her judgement to pass on anything to staff at the hostel if she became concerned about anything.
A couple of three-tiered planters look tired and need a clean. Lu simply says she has brought in some herbs. We feel them all, smell our hands and talk about what they are. We then talk about how we would use them in cooking, which leads on to more discussions about good and healthy food. Two of the women offer to plant the herbs, confident that they know what to do, but checking in with Lu whilst they do it. Everything is done at such a relaxed pace. We laugh about eating flowers! There are nasturtiums in the garden; I try one along with Deb, an American lady who is so keen to get her life back on track. She’s so game and likes the taste – ‘peppery’ she says!
As a guest in the garden, I take a closer looks at some seedlings, not knowing what they are. Stacey* tells me. I thank her and explain that as I work in the Thrive office most of the day I am certainly not an expert gardener. Now feeling confident with her plant knowledge she proudly points out what some of the other flowers are in the garden. I’m genuinely impressed. She then starts enthusiastically telling me what she would like to do in the garden; a water feature is mentioned, the other women join in the conversation, creating mosaic artwork is talked about as Deb is gifted in this area.
The group started in the autumn with just a couple of ladies. On the day I visited there were around 12; some for the duration, others popping in and out.
At lunchtime we walk to a mini supermarket close by and have a budget to buy lunch, loaves of bread, fillings, crisps and fruit. There is a strict budget to stick to, a lesson in learning what is good to buy and how to make your money go as far as possible. Life skills that most of us take for granted but may have diminished for these ladies if they had ever been there in the first place.
Back at the hostel the women work together to make lunch for everyone, I offer to help but am told to sit down and have a rest! It’s great to see. A new lady joined the group today, she’d been in the hostel for just six days. She was very quiet, but got on with the gardening during the morning and felt comfortable enough to chat over lunch.
Problems, issues and fears can disappear in the garden; deep down we know they are all still there but time spent outside gardening can help people to deal with them.
I genuinely didn’t want to catch the train home and wished I could have stayed until the end of the session, but I hope to return very soon.