Normally, at this time of year, we would be in the thick of things at Trill Farm. Our annual summer camp with Romy and our Trill family is a proper highlight, and the fact that this year coronavirus stopped any hope of us having a week away together caused heartfelt disappointment all round. We tried everything to make it possible, and it simply wasn’t.
One thing the pandemic has shown us however is that it is still possible to think fast, think creatively and get things done...
Our Keep Talking project has enabled us to keep in online contact with a good number of the young people we would usually support face-to-face, and through this we have been able to see the impact of lockdown on a group who were already pretty isolated from their community, and who were having to navigate all the common anxieties brought about by the pandemic, in a second language and often without close support.
This is what brought us to this idea: if we could not go to Trill, then we should take as much as possible from our Trill experience, and bring it to us.
It was a Herculean task that fell almost single-handedly to Vicki, and namely to create and organise a week of activities which would remain true to our Trill outcomes: to be outside, and in company (and especially now, after so much time inside and alone); to create time and space to breathe; to boost language skills through participation in a range of different activities, which would reflect what we would usually be doing at Trill; to interact with the community about us; to eat well and to have fun.
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We are lucky to have the Heart Centre just up the road, and having piloted our horse-assisted learning programme with Wendy and her team at the end of last year, we know a day here will match our outcomes brilliantly.
Some of our young people are wary however and K asks us straight out why we want to spend time with horses. We suggest he finds one he likes and has a chat. “They don’t speak my language” he replies, in earshot of one of the Heart Centre team, who laughs and responds “I think you’ll find they do". K looks cynical, but wanders off into the stables and is soon chatting to Boris, in Pashto.
The morning is about choosing your horse, and learning how to build a sense of trust. “These horses are rescued,” Nancy explains “and so they can be nervous. But don’t worry because they will tell you if they are not happy.” Choosing a horse takes time. Some feel an immediate affinity; two want to work with the horses they’d met on Stability. Some are too nervous to choose. “This horse hates me.” M says, pointing to Woody, who has flattened his ears and widened his eyes after M has bounded up to his stall with more arm-waving enthusiasm than Woody has felt necessary. “It’s not hate, it's fear” E tells him. "You are too noisy.” Minutes later, M is stroking Woody’s mane, and Woody, recognising that M's exuberance has eased off, lets him plait it.
Once the horses have been led out, offered hay and groomed, the air is calmer - even quiet. Even our most nervous participant has immersed himself in gently brushing away the dust. Wendy takes everyone down to the school and shows them how to lead, and how to communicate instructions. “Don’t yank, push or threaten,” she reminds them. “You don’t like it; nor do they.”
In the afternoon, Wendy sets up the school for a range of challenges, which also involve getting into the saddle. The boys who have said “No no!” at the suggestion, have been empowered by lunch to change their minds. And so begins the task of convincing everyone of the necessity that is the hat and the back protector. “It’s the law!” we insist, again and again, “And your hair will be fine”. Fortunately, there are shouts of laughter at the sight of everyone else in such weird kit. Some of the boys begin to talk excitedly about the Afghan sport of buzkashi, where teams on horseback compete fiercely to get a goat carcass into a goal. “Shall we do it?” B asks hopefully. We have to let him down gently. These horses aren’t used to buzkashi, we say, and we don’t have a goat carcass.
From here in, it is about teamwork - with your partner, with the group and particularly with your horse. “Don’t force, encourage!” Wendy tells A, who is sitting plaintively on Billy, who in turn is stubbornly refusing to move. “If they want to do it, they will. Get him to want to”. As we move into team races, Billy does indeed participate; however, he does not share the competitive spirit of his riders, and as he plods placidly in last place every time, A sighs, and pulls faces at the others laughing at him.
Day one has gone well. People in the group have got to know one another a bit more; some have had to face some very real nerves and overcome them. Others have found that an activity they had not expected to like was actually fun and they want to come back.
“Horses are clever” L says. “They can look inside of you. If you are scared of them, maybe they are scared of you. When you know each other, things get better.” It strikes us all that this is a reflection of our times, and while we clean down we chat about why fear and hatred are so easily conflated. Once again, the interaction with the horses has created a bridge to our wider ecology and created a safer space for some difficult topics to be shared.
And everyone is delighted with their rosettes.
Thanks to Wendy and Nancy and the whole team at the Heart Centre for a fabulous day. We shall see you soon for the launch of Stability, and we're all very excited about it.
Today we are at SOLD - Surrey Outdoor Learning and Development centre in the hills just outside of Dorking. We have been wanting to work with SOLD for a while but again the pandemic had put an end to our plans, until now.
Today will be of a different pace. We are focusing on skills which require the use of hands, attention to detail, and focus. The truly delightful thing is that not only do we have Akira, one of our excellent volunteers and Trill expert from 2 years back, but we also have Sam Mukemba, our wonderful friend and artist who is with us every year in Devon. We have our brilliant Summer School teacher Aga, who takes careful notes of all new language ready to create language sheets and homework for everyone. And we have SOLD’s Ben, who charms the group with the fact that he does not stop grinning for one second.
There are two challenges. One is to design, create and decorate a leather belt, which Sam charges them to keep “until they are old, old grandfathers”. The other is to source, whittle and decorate a walking stick. Vicki takes this group off to look for hazel - big enough to last, strong enough not to snap, and easy enough to move safely from the tree. “But why do I need a walking stick?” H asks, puzzled. “Everyone needs a walking stick” Akira tells him. “But you could make one as a present?” H then spends the next two hours carefully shaping and engraving one for his foster carer, and we are all delighted later to hear of his joy on receiving it. I have forgotten the pyrography machine, but one of the boys immediately shows us how they used to decorate sticks back home, by stripping back only certain sections of the bark, burning the wood in the fire, then removing the rest to reveal differently coloured wood. Sam tells us to wrap wet string around them and hold them above the flames, to create patterns. Both options are much more suited to sitting about a fire, and it all feels rather fortuitous.
And we start with the leather too. Sam reminds everyone that a belt is a thing of power, and of continuity. “I change my clothes, all the time” he says “But I never change my belt”. The two who made theirs last year at Trill will make wallets. “I have nothing to put in it” M mentions, thoughtfully. “One day, when you have a job, it will be full” Sam tells him, which cheers him immensely.
In contrast to the constant movement of yesterday, today is remarkably more relaxed. People become absorbed in their work and to sit under the trees and focus on the intricate details of stamping and sewing leather, or sanding and carving wood, has the remarkable effect of apparently slowing down time. It’s during such times that we get to chat. Akira is grilled mercilessly about his love life. Others talk about how the activity reminds them of home, and describe the places where they grew up. These can be painful conversations when information is demanded, but under the trees, with no pressure to speak and with hands busy, several recall the things that made them happy before. Weaving links back to positive memories from the past, with autonomy and at their own pace, can bring a sense of reconnection to the threads of their lives that have been lost, which not only gives space for us to bear witness to the complex stories being shared, but can be very grounding in the building of a new and hopeful narrative.
Thanks to everyone at SOLD but especially to you Ben, for your unerring good humour, and the popcorn.
Today we are at Rosamund Community Garden which is a beautiful space overlooking Guildford. At least, we tell everyone it is. The truth is, the only thing we can really see is rain, and buckets of it. Clare and John, from the Rosamund team, are disappointed but valiant. They rig up tarps under which a mural can be painted on a shed, and anchor down gazebos over the picnic benches. But it really is torrential. The organic gardening projects are put aside; one team heads off to attempt the mural and Sam gets everyone else back to their leatherwork instead.
And despite the relentless bashing by the rain and wind, everyone remains cheerful. Regular raids of the apple trees and raspberry bushes, a stash of biscuits and endless offerings of tea helps, as do our young volunteers, who find common interests in music, sport and all things teenage. In general, it can be hard for displaced young people to meet their peers in the local community. If you are not in a school, then you are likely to be in ESOL courses and opportunities to run into the English-speaking students are scarce. This is a shame for both groups. We set them all to barbecuing the chicken and prepping the salad and the flatbreads and they get on marvellously.
There are always things to laugh about but today’s highlight really is a sudden rip in the gazebo, through which the rainwater which has been quietly pooling above K’s head gushes down on top of her, and all inside her rain jacket. It doesn’t matter where you come from - the sight of someone being unexpectedly, disastrously drenched is hilarious in any language.
We will go back to Rosamund community garden. A more friendly, welcoming place is hard to imagine and despite the rain, everyone was taken with all the fruit and vegetables growing there. A even had his first ever raspberry. The therapeutic benefits of time spent in a garden are well-documented and we see it every year at Trill. Our friendship here is just beginning but all of us feel there is a lot more that could be done together. We also need to finish the mural. And it would be good to prove that, when you are not in the midst of deluge, the garden really does offer an excellent view of Guildford.
Thank you so much Claire, John, Helen and team. If you'll have us, (after our blatant ransacking of your fruit and veg beds), we'd love to come back.
We are back at SOLD and heading skywards. Today, everyone in is harnesses and hard hats, and challenged first with SOLD’s outdoor climbing wall. Safety instructions in a mixed language group take longer; everything must be demonstrated and especially so with young people whose experience of danger and therefore tolerance of risk can be very different to what is perhaps typical here. The SOLD staff are entirely patient and their confidence in the overall safety is so apparent that as a result, there seem to be no nerves in the group at all. At the wall, which up close seems impossibly tall, the BLF team are asked if we are going to do it too, and so we point sadly to our inappropriate footwear and feign disappointment. Aga, who has perfect shoes on and therefore no excuse, at this point disappears to fetch something.
And so they climb. Some race to the top of the wall and yell down that it is “easy”. Competition heats up. Aidan takes them to the most difficult part, where there is an overhang at the top and tells them his personal record is 40 seconds. M shoots up in 33 seconds flat. J and A race behind him in 36 and 39 seconds, with J complaining all the way that he lost the vital seconds because of his “bad shoes”. Aidan tells him that it is going to be an Olympic Sport, which makes us think we should look into more regular climbing opportunities for anyone who wants them.
The next activity involves a very high platform, a trapeze and a leap of faith. This takes teamwork - you must find a way to share the platform, bring your toes over the edge at the same time as your partner, and dive forward together. If your partner is more nervous than you are, it is up to you to be the encouragement. On the ground, Aga explains what we mean by a leap of faith - “You just believe it’s going to be ok and jump”. H smiles somewhat ruefully and says this sounds like life. But he jumps, catches the bar and on his way down, takes up the instructor’s invitation to somersault in celebration.
The final activity involves balancing on the top of a very high and wobbling pole with one other member of your bubble (social distancing can be done even up in the trees). Once there and balanced, you work together to undertake several challenges shouted up to you. The bonding experience of this sort of teamwork really takes hold and the group is mixing far more freely now.
Our final activity of the week is run by Jim and Sarah from Surrey Arts, our great friends and regular collaborators in all things musical. Jim has brought djembes, a loop pedal, a mic and a huge great speaker. Of course, the immediate temptation is to bash away as fast and as loudly as possibly but Jim is a hugely experienced workshop leader and very quickly brings everyone into a mutual rhythm. Some shy away from the mic initially, but most can be persuaded to make some kind of noise - a soundscape of the woods where we are. Two perform entire raps, one in Hausa, one in Albanian and we can’t help wondering how often these Surrey trees have heard such a mix of linguistic, rhythmic and musical styles.
And that was the week. We have missed Trill desperately - the people, the place and the opportunities offered up by dint of having everyone under one roof. Bringing people from different parts of the county to different locations every day, with all the requirements of punctuality and attendance, is undeniably exhausting. But it has worked. And the pandemic has underlined that sometimes life will take a completely unexpected turn and you then need to think on your feet and respond in the best way you can. It would be shortsighted not to recognise the analogy in this.
Everyone at Big Leaf is now looking ahead to the next chapter.
We are so grateful to all our supporters, without whom we could not have put this week together. Thank you to you all, to our activity leaders, to SOLD, to the Heart Centre and all their horses, Claire and John at Rosamund, Jim and Sarah at Surrey Arts, and to Sam, Akira, Aga, Toby, Richard, Jaegs and Gio. However, thanks most of all to all our young people who grasped every task with enthusiasm and good humour, even when soaking wet, and who got up on time, every single day.