Secret Ingredients - the Amelia Trust Farm
Sometimes I visit a project that's so inspirational, I want to bottle its ethos and enthusiasm so I can transport it away with me and sprinkle it all over the country as I go!
That was the case when I went to see Amelia Trust Farm in Barry near Cardiff. Local philanthropists Ethel and Bob Huggard bequeathed a 160 acre farm to set up the charity in 1991 and it was named in memory of Bob’s mother Amelia. Bob died soon after the charity began but Ethel continued to support it until her death in 2008 and the farm has gone from strength to strength.
A BBC Children in Need grant of £86,565 enables the project to support 16 to 18 year olds who need to bridge the gap between education and employment. It teaches them vocational skills like construction, woodland management, animal and farming techniques as well as life skills to improve their confidence and motivate them for work – taking them out of the “Not in Education, Employment or Training” category in the process. These young people may be physically or materially disadvantaged and many are involved with social services. More than three quarters have been unable to attend main stream school on a full time basis.
A group of 150 or so volunteers support the enthusiastic staff, creating a team that makes this project effective. They perform all sorts of tasks from running the farm shop to chatting to the many young people that attend regularly.
Matt is one of those young people. He became school phobic when he was in Year 10 and was absent from school for seven months. He even stopped leaving his home. Lorraine Brown, the Director of the Amelia Trust, who’s also a local Methodist minister and former nurse, went to see him at home to encourage him to visit the farm. Eventually, he did and he grew to love his days there so much that his mum said it was the only day of the week that he could get out of bed early to ensure he wasn’t late for his lift. That one day then turned to three days. Staff saw him develop ability with livestock and a willingness to learn that has now enabled him to complete Open College Network qualifications. Today, Matt acts as a mentor for other young people who attend the farm and is on a placement at a local agricultural college where he’s doing exceptionally well. Matt has now been offered an apprenticeship through the college.
Lorraine says: “Matt has changed from a quiet lad keeping himself in the background, speaking only when necessary, into a confident young man, able to address a room of 100 people in a clear manner and engaging with young and old alike. He is dependable with a strong work ethic, has plans for the future and sights set on University. His parents are so pleased with the changes they have seen in their son – both they and Matt believe that it’s is due to the support that the Amelia Trust has given them.”
So how has the Amelia Trust turned Matt’s life around? What’s its secret? Any parent or teacher who knows a monosyllabic teenager would like to know the magic ingredient for developing them into a capable, confident communicator. Well, it seems to be partly down to the high staff ratio of one adult to three young people and partly down to the hands on nature of the daily routine at the farm. But a lot of it is also down to the word ‘hope’. At each daily briefing, director Lorraine encourages staff to list something positive that each young person has achieved that day. It might seem insignificant but every aspect of positive behaviour is encouraged – even if it’s just that they shared their packet of crisps at lunchtime.
The rules are kept simple:
- There's no shouting, as all it achieves is a competition between individuals to see who can outdo the other with a louder voice.
- Young people have to always be in sight of staff.
- Everyone has to adhere to health and safety policies because of the hazardous nature of farms so that everyone can be kept safe.
The day starts with a staff briefing from 0900 to 0930 and a breakfast club is provided so young people have the opportunity for tea and toast before they begin their daily sessions.
Education Manager Mal Jones draws up individual timetables for the young people involved; they have an opportunity to try woodwork, pottery, working on the land, cooking, music, computer skills, sports or working with the animals. The sense of self-worth the young people get from making something themselves, whether it’s mending some fencing, designing and building a new rabbit hutch, creating a decorative bit of pottery or a small wooden stool that they can take home, is really valuable and helps them blossom.
They also work on their life-skills including building relationships, communication skills and anger management. Volunteers, staff and young people are encouraged to have lunch together, to continue building a healthy team spirit and self-worth.
It costs £51 a day for young people like Matt to attend the farm. That cost is picked up by schools or social services for under 16s, but once their years of compulsory education come to an end, more difficult negotiation is involved in funding those placements. That’s why their grant is so crucial. Lorraine has often had to argue that this type of intervention is more effective both in cost and outcome, than trying to mop up the consequences of the actions taken by teenagers with behavioural difficulties if they are not given appropriate support.
Lorraine says: “The cost of placing young people in care in other parts of the country or of funding legal fees if they get involved in the judiciary system can run into thousands of pounds a week, and that’s without taking into consideration the greater effect and damage to the lives of these young people. It's preventative intervention.”
Lorraine and financial manager Andrew Chiplen can reel off example after example of young people who have been able to reach their full potential as a result of the individual attention and support they've received at Amelia Trust.
Eight or nine young people have been attending since the grant came on tap in July 2012 but that figure is growing as more local colleges become interested in their work and make referrals. Harder to quantify are the benefits passed on to farm visitors and enjoyed by its staff and volunteers.
But as part of the growing phenomenon of Care Farming, maybe its philosophy will catch on and spread to include more than the approx 150 care farms that are involved in projects like this across the UK.