By Sue Pitt – Fruit-full Communities Project Officer
As the Fruit-full Communities project comes to the end of its third and final year this seems like a good moment to reflect on what has been achieved. The project has been led by Learning through Landscapes in partnership with ITF, The Orchard Project and YMCA England and has been funded by the Big Lottery Fund under the umbrella of Our Bright Future. Over the course of the three years, orchards have been planted at 42 sites across England and Wales. At each site, we have worked with YMCAs and Foyers that support vulnerable young people aged 11 – 24 years either in supported housing or through associated youth groups. Consultants have worked with these young people to help them design, plan and plant an orchard in their grounds or nearby accessible green space. Through practical, outdoor activities, young people have gained new skills and have increased in self-confidence and wellbeing. New habitats have been created, often using heritage varieties of fruit trees to enhance biodiversity, with benefits for wildlife and humans alike. Participants have also made connections with young people from some of ITF’s other projects in Zambia, Kenya and Uganda.
The numbers for the project are impressive. Over three years, 688 trees have been planted, 1117 young people have taken part in workshops, 211 support staff have gained experience and 360 community volunteers have been involved. The 42 sites in which the orchards have been created have varied hugely and it would be impossible to mention all of the wonderful work that has been done. At some centres only a small outside space was available, so espaliers and cordons were used and sheltered seating was often provided to create a relaxing social space for residents. As one participant explained, the space made her feel “Inspired. Calm. Natural. I use nature as a way to clear my head”. Staff, too, have reported how young people use the outdoor space as a calm place that helps them cope with the challenges they face in life.
Other centres have had much more space. At YMCA Humber more than 100 trees were planted as well as many varieties of soft fruits. Residents here took on leadership of the project and the impact has been transformational. Applications for further funding from other sources has enabled the planting of a wild flower meadow to attract pollinators into the orchard, the building of a solar-powered irrigation system designed by one of the residents and the creation of a workshop area with cob walls. Staff have reported great changes in residents behavior as a result of the project, with reduced alcohol and substance intake, improved work ethic with volunteers going into full-time employment, and an improvement in physical and mental wellbeing. Here it is clear that the ongoing impact of the project on the local environment and young people’s lives is immeasurable.
Some centres have enjoyed the project so much, they have come back for more. YMCA Barnsley have worked in partnership with the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust to create three orchards. One is on a small allotment site that they use regularly with their youth groups, where 22 trees were planted. This will provide ongoing opportunities for young people to learn how to care for fruit trees and how to use the produce in cooking activities. The other two orchards were planted on open access land managed by the Wildlife Trust. Here the focus was on planting heritage varieties to increase biodiversity and provide new habitats for wildlife as well as an abundance of fruit for local communities to use. At these sites, too, there will be ongoing activities to engage local people in the care of the trees and an annual Wassail to celebrate the orchards and their harvest.
During the course of the project it has been possible on several occasions to bring together young people from the different centres to take part in a young people’s panel. Participants at these sessions have gained a great deal from the opportunity to travel and to meet other young people involved in the project. They are rightly proud of what they have achieved and have enjoyed being able to share their experiences and hear about what others have been doing. Two young people went on to take part in the Youth Panel for Our Bright Future. Fruit-full Communities is just one of 32 projects that come under this umbrella – all of which engage young people in some kind of environmental activity. Our representatives were nervous to meet with the representatives from the other projects, but were very excited to realise that they were part of such a big movement for environmental change amongst young people. In October 2018, participants in the project from across the country came together for a celebration event that was held at the Dutch Farm run by YMCA Liverpool. This wonderful outdoor space where one of the orchards had been planted provided a great venue for the celebration. Young people took part in a number of activities, including apple pressing, the longest peel competition and the Fruity Footprints Quiz led by ITF.
Another important legacy of the project is the environmental resource pack ‘Growing Outdoors’ that ITF has produced. This highly accessible resource was created to provide ideas and activities to help young people understand the wider global and environmental issues associated with the project. Although it was created specifically for the project, it is versatile enough to be used by young people in a wide variety of contexts. It is freely available on our website and we hope that it will be widely used.
Fruit-full Communities has been a new challenge for ITF. We have been working with young people who have had a tough start in today’s unforgiving world and can be very hard to engage as a result. The project has given them an opportunity to find out what it might be like to work with nature, with each other and with local communities to make a positive contribution to their environment. For many it has made a significant contribution in helping them to turn their lives around. ITF has learned a great deal from the project. This learning has informed the development of our new project Wellbeing in the Woods, in which we work with similar groups of young people taking them out into the woods to take part in a variety of practical woodland activities. Initial indications are that this will be very successful in enhancing their wellbeing as well as their knowledge of woodland. We are also hoping to develop a further project with our partners Learning through Landscapes and The Orchard Project to continue our successful work together.