Below the Radar: Cultivating the growth of community groups
By Kelly Hall, Development Manager
A couple of weeks ago I had the great privilege of joining some of our supporters on a morning of visits to local groups. We visited three groups in Mendip, all of whom use nature and outdoor settings as a tool to deliver positive impact for people facing a range of challenges.
We visited The Food Forest Project in Shepton Mallet, Shared Earth Learning Co-op in Frome and Cultivating Community at the Walled Garden in Mells. We were blessed with some sunshine after a long night of rain, and it was particularly special for most of us as it was our first time visiting projects in-person since the pandemic. It was wonderful to see the fantastic work that is taking place at each of the organisations and hear about the positive impact they are making on the lives of local people.
What struck me about all of the groups is that they were started by inspirational people who have brought specialist knowledge and expertise from their professional careers and used that to spark an idea about how to change the world. Dr Sam Evans is founder of Cultivating Community CIC, which provides therapeutic horticulture and wellbeing programmes within the Walled Garden at Mells. Sam runs the Walled Garden as a stand-alone business with a café and plant nursery. Sam’s background in helping businesses improve their performance puts her in a fantastic place to run a strategic and effective social enterprise and this experience shone through when she recently won funding from SCF’s Somerset Social Enterprise Fund to launch an online seed selling business which will help to fund the charity’s wellbeing programmes and diversify their income streams to make them more sustainable.
Tristan, who founded the Food Forest Project, has a background in historic building conservation and has worked for English Heritage. This experience has served him well in his work persuading local landowners to grant him permission to use small pockets of their land to develop food forest sites that conserve and nurture the land whilst providing growing spaces for local people.
Speaking of land, it was very clear from the visits that an organisation does not have to own land to be able to run a project on it. We know that one of the trickiest resources to come by in the UK is land, because so much of it is privately owned. But the projects we visited have managed to think creatively and make connections with landowners who are happy to be radical and open pockets of land for community use. They have carefully worked together to explore how they could utilise land that is not being used by the owners, without negatively impacting on the rest of the land which is often used commercially. Shared Earth Learning Co-op is located on the site of Vallis Veg in Frome. Vallis Veg is a small (18 acre) mixed use farm with a market garden and campsite. The passionate founders of Shared Earth have persuaded the owners to allow them to use pockets of space on the farm, including some woodland, and the two organisations work in harmony alongside each other, respecting the invisible boundaries between the different zones.
Having worked with many charities over the past 15 years I am no stranger to small charities, but it is always so inspiring to see the diversity of skills and expertise that sits behind them, and be reminded of the creativity, initiative and the dedication that goes into the work they do every day. It is also a welcome reminder that there is no such thing as ‘just’ a volunteer and that everyone brings a unique blend of experiences and individual gifts that make each organisation special.
It was such an inspirational morning and I very much look forward to visiting other projects soon.
Photo caption: Tristan Faith, founder of The Forest Food Project speaking with some of our supporters during a recent Below the Radar visit