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Friendship Really Matters: How garden therapy can nurture friendships and help lives to blossom

Making real connections with others can be challenging, whether you live in an isolated village or at the heart of a city. Add a disability to the mix and finding friends can get considerably tougher, with barriers such as access, speech difficulties and transport issues coming into play.

Livability Holton Lee, in Dorset’s tranquil countryside, is a place to get connected and forge new friendships whatever your age, ability, background or experience. Through Holton Lee’s wellbeing discovery programmes, people come together to work on a conservation team, learn about horticulture or just breathe in the peaceful landscape, close to Poole Harbour.

Holton Lee’s Flourish programme offers horticultural therapy to fifty people every year.

People join Flourish in a number of ways, such as through a social care referral or family recommendation. Clients learn skills as they tackle productive and fulfilling work together, with fruit and vegetables sold to the public through Holton Lee’s veg box scheme.

“Flourish works because we take every single person 100% without exception at face value,” says Flourish manager Emma Browning. “None of the service users or volunteers know anything about anyone’s issues or backgrounds when they arrive – they just see a new face, and everyone is different in terms of background, age or ability.”

"My friends are Mark and Emma. Mark helps me and I help him" -

“My friends are Mark and Emma. Mark helps me and I help him” – Thomas

What the Flourish staff team finds is that friendship and camaraderie between clients inevitably develops, often between people of different backgrounds or abilities, who might not have otherwise had the chance to meet in their everyday lives.

Thomas has been part of the Holton Lee community for over five years. When he first arrived, Thomas, who has limited speech, says he was “a bit scared” as it was a “new place and new people”, but now he feels right at home and enjoys getting stuck in – some of his favourite jobs are “watering, turning the compost and weeding”. Working with others has meant that Thomas can use his gifts and friendly personality to make connections: “I like helping people. Some of my best friends are at Holton Lee. I like it here – we’re a funny bunch! My friends are Mark and Emma. Mark helps me and I help him.”

Mark and Thomas became friends through enjoying similar tasks at Holton Lee.

Mark does not communicate verbally, but Holton Lee’s focus on team and shared tasks has meant the two guys have found much in common, with very little talking involved. Horticultural therapist Anna Sweeney describes their friendship: “Thomas will say something, then Mark will find a picture of what Thomas has said and point to the picture, and they’ll both laugh at it. You can tell by Mark’s facial expression what he means and Thomas picks up on this. Thomas will often help Mark by saying things like, ‘Come on Mark we’re going this way now’.”

"We see people making life-giving connections and living life to the full" - Emma Browning

“We see people making life-giving connections and living life to the full” – Emma Browning

Flourish reports an exceptionally high level of improvement in clients’ wellbeing, and Emma Browning is certain that the way that Flourish creates opportunities for connecting with others is foundational to that success. ‘‘People who come here with a learning disability or autism, for instance, say they don’t go out because they get laughed at. But it’s different here, and by being open to trying new things and learning new skills, we see people making life-giving connections and living life to the full.’

Flourish at Livability Holton Lee is a volunteering and wellbeing programme for disabled and vulnerable adults. Set in 350 acres of Dorset countryside, it offers participants a range of projects that connect them to nature and each other.

Watch a film about the Flourish project, made by the people who take part

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