Former St Mungo’s client, Victoria, was recently presented with a Royal Horticultural Society Community Champion Award, which is presented to 15 individuals around Britain who have demonstrated exceptional commitment and dedication to the Britain in Bloom cause in their community. Now in full time employment as a St Mungo’s gardener trainer, she tells us about her “greatest journey.”
I joined St Mungo’s as a client at the end of 2013. I’d just come out of four and a half months treatment for long term addiction in Gloucestershire. So when I came back to my home in London, it felt like being thrown onto this cold world without my usual ‘backup’. I felt I needed an aftercare programme.
With the help of St Mungo’s Recovery College, I put in place things for me to do every day. I was challenging myself, getting to better understand myself and all my likes and dislikes masked through addiction. Through the Recovery College, I was put in touch with the Education Training and Employment service; they connected me to St Mungo’s Putting Down Roots (PDR).
“My interest was doing something in ecology or recycling.”
To begin with, I went on a one day course about inspiring your inner entrepreneur. I always felt I could run a business of my own. My interest was doing something in ecology or recycling.
I joined PDR in spring 2014 – the project helps people to recover from homelessness through social and therapeutic horticulture.
By the end of 2014, I’d been put forward to do a three month paid trainee position. Funnily enough, that was a harder decision compared to going for treatment, because it meant having to come off welfare benefits, that make you feel quite protected and having safety nets or ways of coping with the world that are comfortable. I had to make a decision to risk that comfort to begin a training programme with no definitive job at the end of it. That was a massive decision.
By 2015, I had become a St Mungo’s freelance gardener – that meant I could be sent out independently on jobs and I started to earn an income for myself.
“I’m seen as a bridge between a member of staff and a client”
I have my fingers in many pies at the moment. I am working on two main sites, one in Clapham, London – our main training ground, where we do a lot of our horticulture training with our clients. I also work on our second site at Melior Street, London Bridge, which we manage along with six sites in the surrounding area, on contract with Team London Bridge, the organisation set up to ensure the London Bridge area continues to develop as a centre for enterprise, culture and entertainment. The work here gives clients a flavour of what it’s like to work in gardening.
I think my past experience has helped me connect with clients. I am perfectly happy to tell my story so hopefully I might be seen as the bridge between a member of staff and client, but also as someone who understands what it might be like when you come as a nervous first timer, who might not have a lot of confidence or direction. I am here to show our clients that there is a bridge between where they are and actual living, where you are integrated into society.
On many levels what you’re giving clients is something to get out of bed for and something to show up on time for. They get a sense of responsibility to the team that they are working with or even the seeds they’ve sown. You find that you set a simple task to begin with, they’ll want to come check how they are doing. That’s also where I started to understand the connection between gardening and wellbeing. In my own experience, when I started to nurture something that couldn’t nurture itself, I learnt to nurture my needs and wants and to take care of myself.
What interests me is making my world and the people who surround me happier – making my community brighter.
‘The Award was a complete surprise to me’
The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Community Champion Award was a complete surprise to me. Henry Johnstone, from Team London Bridge, the business improvement district, invited me to the Britain in Bloom Award ceremony in Llandudno, Wales. It was an incredible moment. I couldn’t quite believe he was taking me.
I knew that PDR would probably win an award for our work on the local estates around London Bridge – which we did, we got gold. I left the ceremony early to go to bed. Apparently 15 minutes later, I was called up on stage for a Community Champion Award – one of 15 around Britain this year. You can’t get bigger than the RHS for the work I do.
I was absolutely speechless. I am very proud. If you’d asked me on 13 July 2013, the day I took the train to Gloucestershire for treatment, I would never have believed that three and a half years later I would be talking about winning an award for gardening. There aren’t words to describe it. I have travelled the world but this is the greatest journey. It’s very emotional. I could not have done it without Ian Kavanagh and Jeff Morgan at PDR. Martin Calderwood, the PDR project coordinator saw a spark in me and he developed it. He also allowed me to develop myself.
This week I start work as a full time gardener trainer. I plan to have pudding with my team.