Mary awarded prestigious Churchill fellowship

New Growing Well General Manager Mary Houston in one of the polytunnels

Growing Well general manager Mary Houston has been awarded a prestigious travel grant to research similar ‘social farms’ in Norway and California.

Mary won through a tough selection procedure to be chosen as one of just 150 people from almost 1,800 applicants to win a Churchill Fellowship to research issues across a range of sectors.

The fellowships, set up on the death of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965, offer UK citizens a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel the world to research global best practice in issues facing Britain today, and to bring back and apply cutting-edge insights and solutions to improve communities and professions across the country.

Mary, 36, who lives with partner Alec Smith and their three young children at Crook, has spent all her career in food and farming. Before taking over at Growing Well in October she was Head of Catering Development at Westmorland Family, and was previously manager of the Taste Cumbria initiative for Cumbria Tourism and the Prince’s Countryside Fund Herdwick Project to promote authentic Lakeland Herdwick.

Her Churchill Fellowship application was to study the growing global movement of social or care farms – where farm-based activity is used to help people with mental health problems or provide social or educational support.

She will travel to Norway in June to attend the European Society for Rural Sociology conference and join a working group tackling social innovation in rural areas. She will also visit a number of social farms in the country. Mary then plans to visit California later in the year and will work at the Forget Me Not Farm in Santa Rosa, where agricultural therapy is used to tackle the cycle of abuse in children and young people.

‘I would like to see a Growing Well equivalent in every district of this country, just like in Norway, and when I return I will continue my work in making this aspiration a reality.’

Mary said: “Workplaces of the future will protect and promote people’s mental health and wellbeing not through HR as we know it but in the context of individuals and their whole lives; flexible working patterns, lifelong learning opportunities and supporting people to be healthy and more active.

“Ironically, supported working environments such as Growing Well have successfully been practicing these disciplines as a means of developing emotional resilience in those recovering from poor mental health, for years.”

Mary, who grew up in Allithwaite and attended Ulverston Victoria High School and Leeds University, says that in Norway the respect for social inclusion and people’s wellbeing is formally established and supported, bringing great benefit to the whole population, while at Forget Me Not Farm in California, the therapeutic value of agriculture has been recognised and developed for many years.

“Coming from an agricultural county such as Cumbria, where we are so connected with the landscape, and working in a horticultural setting at Growing Well, I am in no doubt that being in nature, and establishing a deeper respect for the world around us is as good for us as it is for the land,” she said.

“I would like to see a Growing Well equivalent in every district of this country, just like in Norway, and when I return I will continue my work in making this aspiration a reality. Now, more than ever, our farms need to diversify and our population needs to understand the social as well as productive value that they can create for our communities. There are great opportunities here for all concerned.”

Growing Well, on a six-acre site at Low Sizergh Farm, has been working with people living with and recovering from poor mental health for more than 14 years. It provides opportunities for more than 100 people a year to volunteer in its organic growing and catering business, and acquire vocational skills and qualifications.

Employing occupational therapists, trainers and counsellors, it provides a safe, supportive working environment to nurture mental health recovery, working with people on a weekly basis to help rebuild a sense of purpose, to engage in meaningful and fulfilling activity and build hope for the future.

The farm also supplies fresh, local, organic fruit, veg and salad leaves to businesses such as Westmorland, more than 50 ‘crop share’ members receive a weekly veg box, and seasonal produce and chutneys sold at the Low Sizergh Barn farm shop.

Churchill Fellowships are open to any UK resident citizens aged 18 or over to apply, regardless of qualifications or background. Fellows are funded to travel the world for 4-8 weeks, researching innovative ideas and best practice in a practical subject of their choosing. The average grant is £6,000.

The next chance to apply for a Churchill Fellowship opens on 16 May 2019 and includes new categories on ‘Palliative and end of life care’ and ‘Physical activity: making moves for healthier lives’. Application details are online at wcmt.org.uk.

Cultivating good mental health

More than 120 business leaders were gathering today to launch the Cumbrian ‘This is Me’ campaign on mental health in the workplace. Mary Houston, general manager of the Kendal-based Growing Well charity, explains how the organic farm at Low Sizergh can help.

First published in The Westmorland Gazette, February 2019

Look around your office or workplace and it’s likely that one in four of you have been affected by conditions such as anxiety, depression and stress in the last year.

Today’s launch in the county of the national ‘This is Me’ campaign – which aims  to break the culture of silence around mental ill health by supporting people to tell their stories – is a welcome addition to the growing conversation around mental illness and wellbeing.

Slowly the stigma is being lifted – but there’s a still a long way to go.

Here at Growing Well we’ve been working with people living with and recovering from poor mental health for more than 14 years. We provide opportunities for more than 100 people a year to volunteer in our organic growing and catering business, and acquire vocational skills and qualifications. We provide a safe, supportive working environment to nurture mental health recovery, working with people on a weekly basis, sometimes over years, to help rebuild a sense of purpose, to engage in meaningful and fulfilling activity and build hope for the future.

For many the clear end goal is to build the skills and confidence to go back to work – and last year we introduced new, focussed Return to Work courses that have enabled more people to return to work more quickly.

For many people, recovery is a lifelong journey.

The good news is that our work has been found to be extremely effective, in both formal audits and in our annual survey of volunteers. Last week we were pleased to welcome Westmorland and Lonsdale MP Tim Farron back to the farm, who praised Growing Well as “one of the most effective mental health charities I have ever come across”.

Our 2018 feedback found that 100% of volunteers who took part in the survey felt Growing Well had helped them achieve or work towards their goals, with 86% saying Growing Well was directly responsible for improvements in their mental health.

The huge impact our “excellent and supportive” team have on people’s lives is summed up in comments such as “Gives me a reason to get out of bed”; “gives me the chance to be myself and feel that is enough”; “It’s given me the confidence to integrate back into a social group and work towards getting back into paid employment.”

“It’s given me the confidence to integrate back into a social group and work towards getting back into paid employment.”

GROWING WELL VOLUNTEER SURVEY 2018

The other outcome of all this work on the farm is 15 tonnes a year of fresh, local, organic fruit and veg. Under our “Crop Share” scheme more than 50 local supporters receive a weekly bag of fabulous seasonal produce. This summer we will be expanding the scheme with 30 more bags a week available.

The produce also provides 3,000 volunteer lunches a year, freshly prepared and cooked on site in our new catering unit. Last year we introduced a new summer salad scheme, and we supply wholesale customers such as Low Sizergh Barn and Cafe, Westmorland Services and Kysty Café in Ambleside.

Like most charities, Growing Well faces funding challenges. If you are only vaguely aware of what we do, you might assume we are an organic veg business with a social mission to employ people struggling with mental health.

But a six acre veg farm could never generate enough funds to support the level and quality of individual care provided by our Occupational Therapist, counsellors and trainers and so most income is dependent on donations, sponsorship and fundraising.

We continue to receive referrals from more than 40 different sources, most of them local GPs and mental health professionals, but readers may be surprised to learn we receive no money from the NHS, despite our vital work, proven to be effective, saving the health service tens of thousands of pounds a year.

In the coming year our aim is to increase the profile of Growing Well locally and the understanding of our vital work so we can continue to deliver our vision of for people living with and recovering from poor mental health to be active, to be included in their communities and to understand their worth.

We believe that change is possible no matter how unwell someone is. You can help our mission by:

  • Joining our Crop Share scheme
  • Considering Growing Well when you are fundraising
  • Becoming a regular donor and supporter
  • Becoming a corporate supporter
  • Thinking of us when planning your legacies
  • Donating your time and expertise

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For more information about our work, how to help, and if you think you, a friend or family member might benefit from our support, visit www.growingwell.co.uk

Our new award! (Altogether now – “oooh!”)

Yes, on Thursday 22nd March we were let out for the evening. Clairelouise, Sarah, James and Sharon (don’t we scrub up well?) put on their gladrags and attended the Cumbria Life Food and Drink Awards at Kendal College. The food was incredible – and all cooked and served by the catering/hospitality students. Our host for the proceedings was Jay Rayner, he of BBC’s The One Show, restaurant critic and all-round raconteur. AND WE WON AN AWARD!!! Jay presented us with the Food and Farming 2018 award for our work with therapeutic horticulture and mega-salad production. Didn’t we do well?

 

Ta-da!

Jay, CL, Sharon, Sarah and James. Looking good team!