Just over a year ago Vicki and I spent a morning at Operation Centaur in Richmond Park, drinking mugs of tea with Dr Andreas Liefooghe and listening, somewhat rapt, to him talk about the benefits of an equine-assisted therapeutic approach. The evidence is compelling, he told us, that horses can play a significant role in creating a response to complex distress.
We’d already seen snapshots of this during our Summer Camp at Trill Farm, when sessions with Sue from Awareness with Horses had left our group visibly relaxed. For some, it was because it reminded them of home; for others, it was simply because the horses were fun, and kind to them. J said that he had had a long talk with Tristan (a tranquil dappled grey), and when asked what they’d talked about he said “many things, both in his language and English,” but it was also “private”.
The post-flight phase can be overwhelming, when thoughts about what happened before, what is happening now, and what is still to come can be impossible to untangle. Horses invite communication, but they are not demanding of words; this removes the pressure of having to articulate the impossible. It allows space for a relationship to develop between person and horse which can be the catalyst for renewed reflection, and foundation for stability - hence the name of our new equine-assisted project.
It wasn’t an easy one to set up. “We want to take your young person to spend three hours around horses, and - er - then ride them” isn’t always met with enthusiasm from those with overall responsibility for the safety of others. But Wendy Firmin-Price, director of the Holistic Horse and Pony Centre in Ockham is used to working with diverse groups and her unswerving conviction in the benefits of this project is contagious, and so it began...
B started out as our most reluctant participant; wanting to take part, but with a very real fear of horses. Wendy brought out a small white pony called Bounty, and they watched each other for a while, before Bounty began to eat the hay he offered, and stood serenely while he learned to groom. Now, as the others chop and change their horses, wanting to try each others, B and Bounty stick to each other resolutely. When Jo offered to hold her while he nipped to get his hat, he agreed and added “but don’t touch my baby” and gave her a wide grin. It was the first whole sentence he’d ever offered us, and his first proper smile.
It is significant that many of the horses are rescued from neglect and abuse, and this is not lost on anyone. Explaining this briefly to K while he groomed his mare, he said “Yep, like me” and put his face against her nose.
Out in the school, it is mostly laughter. Wendy and Nancy are strict on the shape of communication. “Don’t tell them, ask them” Nancy reminded them last week, after a colourful display of equine stubbornness from Honey. “They respond to your energy” Wendy explained, so you need to keep your energy up. “Energy up!” becomes a regular call from the staff, as each participant tries to encourage their horses to follow their commands through more positive body language and posture, and mostly, it works.
In the final two weeks, the time comes to get on and ride. We are somewhat taken aback to find Wendy bringing out blindfolds. First, she pairs every one up, and instructs one to cover their eyes, before sending the partners out on an obstacle course around the school. The leader has to communicate the tasks, without saying a word and without once allowing their partner to see, and it must be done through the same gentle, positive communication they have been learning to use with the horses. For those blindfolded, it requires ultimate trust that the large, wobbling block onto which your partner had requested you climb and balance, is not going to tip beneath your feet. “When you don’t know what you’re stepping on” Wendy reminds everyone “it’s nerve-racking”.
The first time they get on the horses, the blindfolds stay on. There is a pad to sit on, but no saddle and no reins. I admit to a sense of doubt that anyone will be up for this, but they all are. Our most nervous participant is first on, beaming widely as his horse calmly moves off. Within seconds, he is calling out to Wendy to see if they can “try running”, and then, after Midnight has obliged with a short and gentle trot, he lays back with his arms behind his head, and sings at the sky.
Our final week brings out saddles, reins and the back protectors (“Noooo - REALLY we wear that?!” “Yes, REALLY you do.”). After a session in the school, where those who have ridden before (always bareback and never having to wear a 'silly hat’, they tell us, pointedly) are reminded by Wendy about respectful use of commands, sitting straight and keeping heels back. We take a trek along the surrounding bridle paths, in a rare hour of sun across the hills, and the atmosphere is both calm and buoyant. The horses know the route backwards so when there is space for a tiny bit of speed, they take it... and the riders are delighted.
At the end, once the tack is cleaned, the manure picked up and the horses put out to the field, we finish with hot chocolate and cake and reflect on what has been learned. Wendy brings out rosettes for everyone to mark the end of the course, and there is a lot of hugging. Between riders and the riding team, but mostly between the riders and their horses.
We are so grateful to everyone at the Heart Centre, and in particular Wendy and Nancy for their welcome, teaching, humour and biscuits; to Caesar, Minnie, Oliver, Bounty, Galaxy, Midnight and Honey for their patience, acceptance and the occasional displays of hilarious bloody-mindedness; to the social workers and key workers for taking a leap of faith and being open to the project; to Jo for taking this on with such gusto (it’s possible she enjoyed it just as much as the boys); to Kate, Sam, Sarah and Dave for generous provision of boots and hoodies, and to Mashood, without whom it could not have happened.
The I Speak Music community orchestra is a wonder. It must be a rare thing - an orchestra which thrives not only on its very mix of nationalities, ages and cultures, but also on the different abilities of its players? It is an entirely levelling experience - a shared endeavour where there is simply no space for labels declaring political status or ethnocultural background, nor for restraints created by language difference. I sat with my santoor (which I don’t really play) and my clarinet (which I do) between H on the oud and M on the Eritrean kraa, and was utterly struck by the uniqueness of the moment: when we played not one of us was out of place, for any reason.
We have launched the Big Leaf Football team. Or indeed teams, because last Saturday we had two of them, and both got through to the semis, which for a first outing is brilliant. We are hugely grateful to Guildford Philanthropy and Barrie Philips Hair and Beauty for providing us with the shirts, and to our brilliant volunteers Akira, Fab and Bini for marshalling the troops, 'reminding' everyone of the tournament rules, and allowing the rest of us to pass the day chatting on the sidelines and accepting dates (the fruit kind) off the other teams.
We’re now working hard to establish regular coaching and play sessions, setting up matches with local clubs and looking at ways of linking it in with further training. Details will be to follow but do get in touch if you want to know more.
We’re big believers in the power of positive community events like this and so our genuine thanks to Woking People of Faith for the excellent organisation, all the other teams for their generosity of spirit (and of snacks) and to Shah Jahan and Al Asr for providing the competition. Next year, gentlemen, next year…
Image © Big Leaf Foundation
We just managed to bring everyone together for Iftar before Eid began. Our wonderful and brilliant volunteer chef arrived with vats of lentil soup, salad, lamb and okra stew plus an array of desserts. How she does it every time we don’t know. And the kitchen was full of old and new faces, of different nationalities, different religions, some fasting, some not. V and I tried not to pick at anything before the break of fast and were not hugely successful; Susan’s food is seriously good and walking past a bowl of her hummus without dipping a spoon into it is much harder than it seems.
It was a happy, relaxed and jovial evening and the time spent together, whether cooking, eating or clearing up, was just great. Many thanks to Louise, for her brilliant supervision of unwieldy attitudes towards kitchen knives (“Put it DOWN, H and use the TIN OPENER like I SAID!”) to Alison for all the help in and out of the kitchen, to Jonathan for rounding up the eaters and leading prayers, and especially to Susan for the food.
As Tolkien said, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” We certainly valued it last night.
It was the best sort of day for the proverbial messing about on the river. We were finally able to put our conversations with Surrey Canoe Club into action, and handed over 10 young people to the capable hands of Head Coach, Albert Donovan, for the day. Albert has coaching awards coming out of his ears and we had every confidence that the lads could not be in safer hands. He is also delightfully skilled at not taking any rubbish, off anyone. And he has a whistle. Ground rules established, and they all got on like a house on fire, right from the start.
No one had done it before, and there were a couple of expressed doubts about the water in the beginning, which is hardly a surprise, bearing in mind the experiences many have had with dangerous sea crossings in lethally inadequate vessels. But here there were proper life jackets, a quiet stretch of river rippled only by the paddling of ducks, and a team of coaches encouraging them, and any initial qualms seemed to dissipate pretty quickly.
Once they were all on the water, I had my own surge of panic, as M got stuck fast in the reeds and began waving his arms frantically, R discovered a latent Olympic level talent and sped off as though to discover the source of the Thames, and S pitched delightedly over the side of his kayak in an elaborate shrieking capsize, and all at the same time, but the coaches didn’t even raise an eyebrow. “You’re a big shouting chicken mother” K mentioned, as he paddled by, and I can only hope this is a translation of something similar to the mother hen analogy.
It was the best of days, all in all, and we’re already into new proposals for ongoing projects. It seems a day on the river is good in so many ways. Our greatest thanks to Albert, Ian and Pana for the coaching, the patience, the serenity and the chocolate biscuits.
Images © Big Leaf Foundation
Our pilot Cafe Project came to an end on Wednesday, and we can say without hesitation we went out on a high. Despite the pouring rain, the place was buzzing with people and the half term brought in the kids too, which had a wonderful effect on the sales of hot chocolate. What stood out today was the enthusiasm to get out front and talk to the customers, in total contrast to the kitchen-hugging that was happening in the first few weeks. I complimented M on his improved language skills and he grinned widely and said “Yeah but I’m not shy now so it’s easy”. But it was also great to see the camaraderie between our participants and returning customers too; to create a space for positive community interaction was important to us right from the start.
We’re going to take a break - to regroup, evaluate and re-evaluate, ask questions and think about how we're going to move forward. Whatever happens from this point on needs to be sustainable, and we have to find the best shape and fit for that. There’s a fair bit to consider but we’re feeling more positive than I think we would have ever imagined. That’s not to say we haven’t learned anything, because we have, and often things we never expected to learn. But we also learned this:
We'd like to thank everyone for their support and encouragement, and for helping us to sell out every week by eating so much falafel. We all truly appreciated the candid feedback, the offers of help and advice, and the encouragement given to the whole team, every week. Thanks to you all, and whatever we do next, we’ll certainly keep you posted.
What a difference a week makes. In direct contrast to the torrential rain of last Wednesday, today there was only sun. Jo threw cloths over the tables under the wisteria and all was instantly transformed into the Guildford riviera.
We were chuffed to have special guests with us all day too. Tom and Grace from Marlborough College School of English and Culture came down to help prepare them to apply for the Al Rashid scholarship - a life-changing opportunity for a young person of refugee or asylum background to take part in one of two summer residential programmes based at Marlborough College. They started with a workshop on how to promote yourself; how to recognise your skills and talents and then to articulate them in a way that others will be drawn to. This is hard enough for anyone to do, but even harder in another language and another culture. One of the lads shifted in discomfort as I pointed out all his skills that could on go on the application, and said “But in my country you can’t do this. You can’t SAY you're good at things, people will despise you”. Which does have some reflection in modern British culture too, and yet we all know that too much modesty is not ideal on a job application. The issue is that when your background is not UK based and your profile is different from those of your UK based peers, an application form which expects academic achievements and lauds extra-curricular experience of a particular kind can feel like an insurmountable challenge. You can have skills and experience galore, but they can sometimes be difficult to explain and end up looking out of place. And looking to the future is not always an easy thing either, especially when hope for that very future is not yet permitted by the Home Office. All in all, it takes awareness, some practice, and a happy dose of self-belief to overcome this hurdle, and Tom and Grace managed to extract the whole lot. They then put each and everybody through an interview process. Vicki and I were chuffed to bits to see how confidently they took this on, and equally delighted it’s not us having to make the selection. Sorry, T and G, and good luck with that… ;-)
We had special guests in the cafe too. Local business people, friends from all over the place, people coming to introduce themselves having heard about us through other sources… it just felt busy. And today’s star was definitely M, who for the first time was out waiting the tables, and did it brilliantly, despite being at the beginning of the whole English language journey.
Next week should have been the last week of the pilot but we have managed to extend by one week to coincide with half term. After that we will have to take a short break while we work out the next steps. So please come down next Wednesday or the 29 May and see for yourself.
Images © Big Leaf Foundation
The weather was vile on Wednesday and relentless torrents of rain meant the people of Guildford were not on the streets. Taking plates of samples outside to lure people in, while successful last week, was impossible; the falafel would have turned to soup in seconds. Vicki and I were looking without enthusiasm at the planned walk to local businesses to deposit our newly crafted flyers, when we were delighted by the surprise arrival of Akira, who is always a great hit with everybody. Within minutes, he was dispatched with one of the team to wade through the downpour on said delivery mission, which we hope won't make him think twice about offering to help out again.
Still, people did come, and this week we even had telephone orders in advance. A true highlight was the chance to meet Abeer, a local Syrian baker supported by Elmbridge CAN, who had made a stand of baclava for us and brought them down personally with Vicki to see the project for herself. This was good, as I hadn’t trusted Vicki not to eat it all on the way down, and with Abeer’s presence, the baclava arrived untouched. And it proved very popular (see Ray's face in the photo below).
It was great to welcome some of our friends from Citizens UK, Elmbridge CAN, other local businesses and even from Surrey Police (“But will they pay or just take it?” J asked us, which though making us smile, also brought the reminder that contact with police in other countries can be very different to here, and therefore suspicion, hesitation and distrust felt towards them is pretty understandable). Our running pal Andy once again proved his exceptional Number-One-Customer loyalty by barely breaking his stride as he sprinted in soaking wet, grabbed his falafel, shouted cheerful greetings and ran out back into the storm. If we ever get a loyalty card system going, Andy will truly reap the benefits.
Two Wednesdays left to run for our Cafe Project pilot. Please drop by next Wednesday from 12pm if you can.
Images © Big Leaf Foundation
Our third day of opening the cafe and we were hesitant. Unlike week one, we hadn’t bribed our friends to come and Be Customers, and unlike last week, we didn’t have a captive audience of 65 people wanting to eat. External circumstances had also occurred which meant a sudden rearrangement of plans, the last minute luring in of an extra pair of hands (thank you again, Louise) and a bit of thinking on the spot. But we opened on time, and after a nail-biting 15 minutes of silence from the world outside, people began to drift in. S suggested taking out some samples and offering them to passers-by, and since it is not possible to eat Muhammed’s falafel and not immediately fall in love with it, that worked. The cafe buzzed; some people came, sat and chatted; some dashed in and got food to go; we even had a runner taking a break to refuel. A gentleman from Wales came in by accident, fell into conversation with one of the waiters, mentioned the fact that he had never eaten falafel before and found himself compelled by the utter shock on that young person’s face to try it.
We’d started the day with a cultural literacy workshop, focusing on polite interaction with customers (“Do take a seat” instead of “Sit!”; “It’s coming right up” instead of “You must wait”; “Spread the word!”; “See you again!”, all this sort of thing, followed by the endless question of WHY we don’t have a neat little equivalent of "Bon Appetit”) and all of this interaction was put into practice. As a tool for language expansion, the project is reaping rewards already. The customer who declared “Well, that knocked my bloody socks off” caused some confusion, but it was soon ironed out. “Why is knocking socks off a good thing?” B asked, but frankly, we couldn’t answer.
We sold out. And as we all sat down to eat together at the end of the day, L pointed out that there was only one left. Which turned out to be a shame for the gentleman from Wales who’d never had falafel before, because he had come back hoping for another portion, just as L had swallowed it. “But you can come next week” L told him, encouragingly. “It might be a bit far, lad, from Swansea” the gentleman mused “but you never know. It was a smashing lunch.”
We’re open again next Wednesday 12.30-14.30. And this time we can take bulk orders in advance, for pick up at the Electric Theatre. Please contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Images © Big Leaf Foundation
We were so chuffed to be part of the I Speak Music networking event yesterday. From a fairly gentle opening service last week to an auditorium full of hungry people on a late lunch in just one week... is pretty good going.
And the team looked like they’d been doing it for ever. Coffees and teas came thick and fast with no mistakes, and some of them even took courage to chat to the guests over the counter, leaning on the bar in conversation like seasoned landlords. Language development is such a crucial part of the Cafe Project, that these snapshots of interactions create joy for us. Likewise, the pleasure they expressed on spotting the familiar face of our Youth Intervention Officer from the police. We have worked together on several occasions, PC J and I, aiming to address the (entirely understandable) fears and misgivings many of our young people hold towards the police, mostly stemming from distressing experience in other places. Yesterday, however, the arrival of this particular officer caused nothing short of delight.
Muhammed, our Lord Falafel, and Jo, our Electric Theatre rod and staff, were as ever calmly brilliant and it all ran without hitch. Vicki and I were struck by the perfect falafel shapes emerging from the pan. I did try my hand at making one, but it flopped out such a distinctly odd and unappetising shape that J rolled his eyes at me, and said it looked like “something in toilet”. He then demonstrated how to use this magical little falafel gadget properly, but with such deft sleight of hand that I still have no idea how it is done. Still, overall, the only real snag of lunch was for the people looking hopefully, craftily and yet completely in vain for seconds, and that is a good thing, for us.
It was a pleasure to be able to run a training workshop for all the musicians - a happy, hilarious and hugely talented bunch who proved to have great multilingual skills. And the presentations from our great friends Jim at Surrey Music Hub and Darren at Crisis Classroom, and from Davina at the Arts Council, Jennie at the Academy for Contemporary Music and Surrey Police were both fascinating and thought-provoking in turn. We were honoured to be able to share the stage with them and incredibly grateful for all the positive feedback about Big Leaf Foundation, and the many offers of support.
For us though, the highlight was this: one of our Cafe Project participants took a deep breath and stepped onto the stage himself, to address the audience and introduce the project, and did so with such confidence and eloquence, that not only did he earn the loudest burst of heartfelt applause, but our workshop partner, Denise, who had worked with them on vocal confidence only last week, had to claim hay fever as the reason behind her sudden dive for tissues. Sorry to out you, Den, but your reaction sums it up.
The Cafe Project will be running again next Wednesday from 12.30 - 2pm. Please let us know if you plan to come - we might be able to bag you a riverside seat.
Images © Big Leaf Foundation