'It gives them a little hope': Gardening project at Welcome Centre Ilford aims to inspire rough sleepers
PUBLISHED: 17:00 16 July 2019 | UPDATED: 10:00 17 July 2019
It's a hot day in July, but instead of finding a shady spot on the streets in Ilford, a group of rough sleepers are out in the sunshine harvesting spring onions and beetroot in the Welcome Centre's garden.
The gardening project at the centre in St Mary's Road is being led by Vic Norman from the Redbridge Adult Education Institute.
Launched in April, Vic spends two hours each week showing clients how to plant and harvest herbs, fruit and vegetables.
"Seed to plate was the idea," Vic said. "We have three or four regular clients and other people come when they are around.
"Hopefully over time it will grow even bigger. We talk to the kitchen staff as well and they want things that can be used in salads and whatever they are cooking.
"I mostly teach counselling but I love gardening. We have a big open space at the institute and we did a wellbeing project with gardening, and now I've turned it into something permanent."
That project started about three years ago and now he sells the produce that is grown to staff.
"The money goes back into the garden so it's sustainable for what we want to grow," Vic said. "It's all organic. I've always loved growing stuff since I was a kid, so it just took off."
Etson Ribeiro, 36, is a rough sleeper recovering from a drug addiction, but he describes this new gardening project as "proper rehab" for him.
"This is good therapy for me," he said. "It gives me a sense of life. It's about using your brain and using your sense of willing to create and be creative.
"Vic has inspired me - I've never had this contact with nature directly.
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"It stops me from having negative thoughts - I've been involved with drug addiction and I'm in the process of rehab by working on projects like this. This is a proper rehab. There's nothing better than spending all my day here.
"It's something normal, something useful, something healthy. It keeps me motivated."
The garden is funded through donations and individual grants, but Vic and his group are considering selling their produce to help fund the project.
So far, the team have planted tomatoes, potatoes, cucamelons, peas, chives, radishes, lamb cress, beetroot, parsley, carrots, lettuce, spring onions, strawberries, mint, beans, cucumbers and salad leaves.
"The idea was to grow herbs, fruit and vegetables so they could all be used in cooking here," Vic said. "Hopefully this will be a year-round project, so the garden never sleeps."
Gavin Sibanda, one of the Welcome Centre's clients who takes part in the gardening project, said: "It's a skill I didn't have. Growing up in Africa, I didn't know there was so much I could learn about gardening.
"It's therapeutic - I'm going through issues myself so it helps. The knowledge is invaluable. It's been very beneficial to me."
Phil Herbert, director at Healthy Living Projects, which runs the Welcome Centre, said the community of rough sleepers have responded really positively to the project.
"It gives them a sense of focus," he said. "A problem that a lot of our clients have is finding motivation, so it's great that these guys are doing the garden - it gives them something that can spark them into life.
"There's lots of life lessons here. People learn to be patient and things take time to grow, and that if you put effort in, you get reward. They are all good life lessons to learn.
"Vic works really well with the clients. You could easily lose patience, but he doesn't."
Sonia Lynch, Welcome Centre manager, added: "This has been a fantastic project. I've seen a huge impact - they have worked tirelessly on this garden.
"It gives them a little hope."