We weren’t able to run our summer camp last year… so this summer, when we loaded 12 young people onto a coach and set off for five-days in the glorious East Sussex countryside, the feeling of excitement, from both the young people and our team, was palpable.
The summer camp is one of the highlights of our year. It’s a chance for the young people to relax, to eat well, sleep well, to spend time outdoors, have fun and make new friends. For the Big Leaf team, it’s an opportunity to reconnect with everything we’re trying to achieve… to spend time with the young people, discover their hopes for the future and build trust so that we’re better able to support them in the months and years ahead.
This year, we spent our summer camp at Jamie’s Farm in Lewes.
Jamie’s is a working farm that specialises in supporting disadvantaged young people at risk of academic and social exclusion, through residential programmes that build self-esteem, improve wellbeing and help them develop positive relationships with those around them.
The farm is surrounded by open fields and beautiful woodlands. Just a short walk takes you up onto the South Downs and there are views in every direction. It’s the perfect place to escape the daily stressors that are so present in the lives of displaced young people.
The afternoon walks onto the Downs and across fields become a favourite for us and the young people. “I enjoy the walks,” said R. He’s often quiet and reserved, but when we’re walking, he hangs back with the adults and chats freely about anything and everything.
On the farm itself there are sheep, cows, goats, pigs, horses, chickens and ducks… and all of them need looking after. It’s a task that falls to us and one that the young people relish. M goes straight to the goats. He tells us that he used to have “many goats” and says he loves the smell because it reminds him “of home”.
Each morning we’re divided into teams. One team goes with Eddie, the farm manager, first to clean out the pigs. This is everyone’s least favourite job and M declares, somewhat dramatically “the smell is so bad, I might die”. But they all understand it’s important and they do it with impressive commitment and determination, despite the smell. Then it’s out to the fields to move the cows and sheep to new grazing.
Even the young people who have never worked with animals before understand what’s expected of them. And when it comes to weighing, sorting and tagging the sheep in the yard, their ability to work together as a team sees the sheep sorted in double-quick time. Eddie tells them it’s the fastest he’s seen it done and there’s a huge sense of pride at this compliment.
The second team is with Tim in the kitchen. Their task is to cook for everyone. There are matching aprons, printed recipes to follow, fresh produce from the garden to cook, and music. Lots of music. The kitchen immediately feels like the heart of the house and cooking together creates a sense of community… of family. The food is delicious and Tim later says that E “excelled in the kitchen” and cooking “could be a career for him if he wanted”.
The final team goes with Andi, to collect the eggs and feed the chickens and goats, before grooming the horses and taking them out to the field. We know from our equine programme the impact that working with horses can have on displaced young people and it’s the same here. “They speak my language, I like being with them,” says S.
The afternoon is filled with different activities, from music and art, to log-chopping and vegetable gardening.
The creative sessions with Liz reveal talented musicians – T is brilliant on the drums, R a natural on the keyboard and H takes a shine to the bass guitar. But it’s when A picks up the accordion and starts to play that we all smile. He’s never played one before. But this doesn’t stop him and he delights at the sound it makes. We see him with the accordion several times over the course of the week, in the creative room, and then later around the campfire… and we make a note to ask Jim (our friend at Surrey Arts) if we can find one for A to keep.
Liz works with the group to compose songs. They chose to sing about friendship and love and family and the finished songs are a beautiful mix of English, Arabic, Tigrinya, Oromo, Zaghawa and Pashto, representing all of the languages in our group.
The creative sessions also offer the chance to draw and paint. We talk about things that make us feel good and paint at the same time. The paper and the walls are soon filled with images of camels, of hills, of people, of sunshine; there are words, names and handprints everywhere.
…and somehow there is still time for games. Our young Afghans wow everyone with their impressive cricket skills that see balls hit far into neighbouring fields. Football becomes the leveller, the sport that everyone is good at, and even Bob, the farm dog, joins in here.
But our time at Jamie’s is about so much more than the activities. It’s about the feeling the team has created… the sense of community here. The Jamie’s Farm team join in with everything. There’s no ‘us’ and ‘them’. We all feel like we belong. The words “safe”, “happy” and “supported” come up time and again; and when H says during the morning circle “I feel like I’m with family” everyone agrees.
There is music and play at every given opportunity.
But there are serious conversations too. B tells us he’s worried about his family back home in Afghanistan. He says he misses his mum but he can still talk to her “sometimes”.
These conversations matter and it’s a privilege to listen, to be trusted, and to bear witness to what is shared with us.
On the last night, sitting around the campfire after the others have gone to bed, H tells us that he has nightmares and that he feels as though no one would care if he died. He says his family are “so far away”. He tells us this in his own language because he doesn’t have the words in English. G translates for us and so we are able to tell him that we do care about him. And because we’ve been together all week, because we’ve cooked together, shared meals, played games, talked and supported, when we say we care, he understands that we mean it.
H doesn’t want to leave the farm at the end of the week. He says we are like one “grande famille”.
But this summer camp is different to our first... then we drove them back to their accommodation, and we said goodbye. We didn’t know when or if we’d see them again. It felt as though we’d shown them a glimpse of the life that was possible here and then taken them back to their accommodation without the support to build that life and that community more permanently.
It’s what drove us to set up Big Leaf.
This time, when we take them home we know we will see them next week, the week after and for as long as they need us, at football, at our summer school, for our next equine programme or to make music together.
This is why Big Leaf is so important. Because at the end of the conversation with B and with H we were able to say “we are here to support you” and “we’ll see you soon”…
...and this makes all the difference.
On the last morning, during our final check-in meeting, the Jamie's Farm team speak about each young person in turn – talking about their strength, their determination, kindness, support, musicality, artistic talents, love of sport, humour, cooking abilities and friendship.
The most we can hope for our young people is that they are truly seen for everything they are and everything they have to offer. That this happened at Jamie’s Farm is a sure sign that we have found a home here... and we can’t wait until next summer.
“I felt like I’m with my family, it was the best holiday ever.”
We come back exhausted. But also energised and full of ideas – for a creative space to run regular art and music drop-in sessions, for a garden where we can grow food together (and perhaps even have our own goat) and so much more. Not to replace or even replicate the experience of our summer camp, because nothing can do that. But to respond to the needs and interests of the young people we support, and it was so clear how much everyone loved art and music and the time spent outdoors with the animals.
When we left, the Jamie’s team asked what else they could do to support us and the young people... and the answer is this: Tell everyone how amazing these young people are, how lucky we are to have them and how much they can achieve with the right support, so that together we can start changing the narrative and giving these young people the future they deserve.
In the words of our brilliant artist, M, “You don’t find the happy life, you make it”.
To Ghaith, we’re so grateful for all that you did this week to support the young people, we couldn’t have done it without you. To Surrey Virtual School – Anna, Abi and Anwen – thank you for supporting the Summer Camp this year. None of this would have been possible without your funding and we feel incredibly grateful to have your support in all that Big Leaf is trying to achieve. To all of the social workers, foster carers and key workers, thank you for taking the time to complete the forms and kit lists and supporting the young people to attend. And to the brilliant team at Jamie’s Farm – Clare, Rob, Eddie, Laura, Tim, Liz, Adele, Andi and Bob – it was an incredibly special week. We really feel that Big Leaf has found a home with you all at Jamie’s and we couldn’t have wished for anything more. Thank you.