An outdoors community enterprise set up to boost mental health and wellbeing in the Cynon Valley is celebrating after successfully applying for funding to buy the five-acre site it has been renting during a ‘whirlwind’ two years.
Cynon Valley Organic Adventures, which runs a range of health and learning initiatives for local people and groups, has gone from being unable to afford so much as a shovel in 2018 to being awarded £25,000 by the Welsh Government. The funding secures the future of the riverside site in Abercynon, where the emphasis is on harnessing the benefits of nature to improve wellbeing and employability.
The social enterprise was established with a vision of developing and sustaining a garden to protect and preserve wildlife, as well as bringing people together to learn skills such as how to grow and cook nutritious food and to develop new friendships. In just two years, Cynon Valley Organic Adventures has made wide-ranging links with community groups and schools, as well as accepting social prescription referrals from local GP surgeries, to enable positive, long-lasting changes.
At the heart of the enterprise is director Janis Werrett, who, on coming into post in 2018, undertook a Master’s degree in project management to enable her to develop the site and the learning opportunities it could offer. Under her leadership, volunteers have transformed the site, which includes a large pond, orchard, willow and hazel coppice and woodland. A small core team has continued to work through lockdown – with social distancing measures in place – to install a solar-powered composting toilet and a log cabin café.
Qualified teacher and environmental manager Janis said: “It’s been a crazy year. First the floods totally devastated us, then, within a week or two, Coronavirus arrived, so we were delighted to get to the call from Welsh Government to say we have been awarded funding through the Community Facilities Programme. We will match fund this ourselves with £5,000 and the transfer of the land should take about six weeks.
“In 2018, when I took the land on, we didn’t have a penny; we couldn’t even buy a shovel! We just had a dream. My priority is to generate an income, so I set up a college and since 2018 have designed numerous new accredited courses in the area of environment and wellbeing. Everything we do is focused on sustainability; we need to make money but it has to be sustainable.
“Primarily, we are here to nurture the land and to teach others how to do this, but we also provide accredited learning for individuals, groups and employers, employability training for young people, social prescription activities and clubs and weekly sessions. Through the Wales Voluntary Emergency Fund we are running courses for the most vulnerable children from the age of 14, many of whom have autism and emotional issues. We’re also partnering with Careers Wales to combine employability and wellbeing and taking the learning online so the children can access it now.”
Cynon Valley Organic Adventures runs in partnership with the Green Valley Wellbeing Group, through which it also recently secured £12,500 of National Lottery Awards for All funding to buy and install the Garden Shed Café. The rustic cabin has an outdoors cooking area and will be available to hire as a training venue, as well as used as a community cafe. With Green Valley, the aim is to digitally raise the profile of the garden and develop a community wellbeing app.
The enterprise has recently appointed three new directors and is in the process of securing further funding for projects including the creation of a flood plain meadow -with a hobbit house! “Flood plains are a valuable habitat,” said Janis. “We have a tiny number of them in the UK and we want to show people how important these habitats can be for biodiversity.”
Pre-Covid, three polytunnels were installed for groups to grow and cook their own food, and were also being used by Actif Woods for sessions including wood whittling to make items such as pegs and knives. There are also plans for a community garden, with input from Cwm Taf Morgannwg UHB wellbeing coordinator Julie Lomas and Cynon Valley GP Kamila Hawthorne, while, during the first week of lockdown, Cynon Valley Organic Adventures set up a foodbank and has been working with the council to get essentials to vulnerable residents and those shielding at home.
“The pandemic has really brought us together as a community,” said Janis. “It’s been amazing, with people starting to see the value of spaces like this. Lots of people want to volunteer and we always have space for anyone with ideas of how they can help. It’s the same with the children; often we don’t know what their skills are but they come along and try a few things and it becomes clear they’re a natural fit with something in particular.”