Cynon Valley Organic Adventures is a social enterprise community garden in Abercynon that welcomes families, schools, and volunteers to share their passion for learning about healthy eating and the environment. We bring in a range of people from many different backgrounds to join in with classes and activities in the natural environment.
I was like some of the children that come to the site today – I left school with no qualifications but became a teacher and taught psychology and breaking down barriers to learning and work in schools. I studied teacher training at Aberdare College and set up a social enterprise to work with the community, which has always been my passion.
When I took on the site on in 2018, I was in a dark place myself. It was very neglected, and I noticed the more I worked to help nature, the better I felt. The only way I knew to generate the revenue to pay the rent on the land was to set it up as a college, and we began designing courses in environment and conservation, solar power, eating for the environment and wellbeing. The first year it was just me and two people with autism, who were facing their own challenges at home. After several months working with them, both passed their driving tests, one went on to full-time college and the other full-time work. Gradually, we started getting doctors’ referrals, schoolchildren coming in for learning and wellbeing. Connecting with the environment helps them develop behaviours better for themselves and the environment.
In terms of green prescribing, it was very early days and everyone in the health sector was unsure how to progress. So, I designed a qualification, began monitoring outcomes, and shared that information to the point where we now also get pharmacists referring to us. We’ve introduced wellbeing placements with schools and the outcomes are amazing. We get children who were struggling in mainstream school environments because of autism or ADHD, drug use and complex issues in the home, and are disengaged with education. I always start them off on Level 1 in Environment and Conservation, and they really enjoy the learning. The first young man who came on a placement to me instead of going to school was involved with drugs and criminal activity - now he’s a peer mentor and will be employed by us when he officially leaves school. We get people with autism issues and share that information with Job Centres so they can adapt their processes.
Today, the site is a beautiful five-acre piece of land including a river, wet woodlands, orchards, a pond, polytunnels, and a wide range of wildlife. We have a Queen’s Green Canopy group taking part in a national tree planting initiative created to mark Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee. All our fruit and vegetables are free to the community - we just ask them to plant more to replace them.
In the first year, we didn’t have a penny. We’re now in our third year and have 18 members of staff and own the site. The Welsh Government gave us £25,000 to buy it, and we match funded that. Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA) really helped us throughout the pandemic with grants to work on wellbeing with children. We were voted Wales winner of the 2021 National Lottery awards, and recently received a lottery grant to install solar power. We’ll use that to write a qualification to teach solar energy benefits to children. I’ve also written a course called Environmental Action in the Community, so we will deliver that to encourage communities to come up with ideas for taking action locally to initiate change.
The most important thing for us has been our networks – sharing with them and them sharing with us. We’re very lucky that in Rhondda Cynon Taf we have very close networks, and that means we often have Senedd members and ministers visiting who help to spread the word. The universities and our local councillors are often here as well. We’re all working seamlessly, which helps you get the backing you need.
Another major element was community engagement. Early on, we ran a summer school for five to 12-year-olds, and because they were so engaged, we had parents and grandparents coming in too. We’re very close to the community and that’s our strongest asset.
It’s also really important to measure outcomes and share the case studies because when we get awards, the resulting positive publicity helps in terms of funding.
We’ve had an ecological base survey produced, we’re working with Cardiff University on a green prescribing journal, and we’ve conducted an archaeological dig, turning the site into a pollinator time trail, which the schoolchildren will monitor.