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28 October 2014
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The Centrepoint garden not only looked good, it has also helped to rebuild the lives of homeless young people.

Centrepoint planting detail

"My life was going nowhere"

When you're 16, you've dropped out of school, and you're so alienated from your family that you prefer to sleep on the streets than stay in the same house as them, it can seem life has little left to offer. "My life was going nowhere" is how one teenager put it. "Things got really bad - I thought about suicide." This teenager, though, was one of the lucky ones. He discovered gardening, through the national horticultural charity, Thrive. It's not perhaps a typical choice for a lad of his age, but one which many organisations working with troubled young people now recognise can help them on to a better life.

When Centrepoint, a charity for homeless youngsters decided to tap into the benefits of gardening, the organisation set up a vocational training scheme earlier this year with Capel Manor horticultural college in Enfield. The goal that students were set at the start of the course was to learn enough to build a show garden at the Hampton Court Flower Show.

Play area

The result is The Centrepoint Garden, designed by Claire Whitehouse, built around the very particular needs of the homeless youngsters who come to Centrepoint's hostels. There was a play area for babies and toddlers - many homeless girls are also teenage mothers - and a "chill-out" zone.

The 20 students on the course at Capel Manor helped build the garden, though designer Claire Whitehouse says she never quite knew who would turn up. These are youngsters who have never learned the basic disciplines of the working world; three-quarters have no qualifications and dropped out of school early. This unreliability is also reflected in the drop-out rate of about 50% in the early days of the training course.

Vegetable patch

"Why people drop out isn't necessarily because they can't do the course," says Centrepoint's chief executive, Anthony Lawton. "They're unused to the structure of learning, they're unused to working in a team, they're unused to the expectations." Susan Tabor, who manages the Trunkwell Garden Project for Thrive, agrees that such courses teach youngsters so much more than "just" horticulture. "Structured gardening programmes can help to address issues such as decision making, team working, social interaction, communication and taking responsibility," she says. "This gives young people a real goal, motivation and something to work towards."

"Both gardening and being in a good garden space is relaxing"

As well as the practical skills they need to function in life as an adult, there's that quality gardening has of bringing peace and tranquillity into a troubled world. The importance of gardens in the work Centrepoint does is being reflected in a two-year programme to revamp all the hostels' green spaces. "Both gardening and being in a good garden space is relaxing", says Anthony Lawton. "Through doing the gardening, through being in the garden, it's actually another place where people can get into those informal conversations, and that's how most of our work is done."

For the 16-year-old, who's now a qualified gardener with real prospects, horticulture has literally saved his life. "Coming to Thrive completely turned my life around," he says. "I made new friends and got all this support from people there. There's no way I'd be where I am today without it."

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