There’ll always be H.O.P.E.

Gardener Gareth Austin with participants from the Hope Project at The Playtrail gardens. (2109PG55)

Gardener Gareth Austin with participants from the Hope Project at The Playtrail gardens. (2109PG55)

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With their wellies, coats and gardening gloves on the new members of the Horticulture, Organic, Produce and Environment (H.O.P.E.) project left the cover of a large wooden hut and made their way to the allotments near the Playtrail on the Racecourse Road.

The H.O.P.E. project is aimed at young people aged between 15 and 20 with learning difficulties. The scheme offers the young people the chance to learn about horticulture as well as helping them to develop their life skills.

Damien Irwin and Bronagh McDaid working with Gareth Austin on one of the raised beds at The Playtrail. (2109PG56)

Damien Irwin and Bronagh McDaid working with Gareth Austin on one of the raised beds at The Playtrail. (2109PG56)

Young people from Belmont House Special School, Foyleview Special School, St. Patrick’s and St. Brigid’s College, Claudy and Mencap are all involved in the 2012 programme.

Fifteen year-old Mark O’Kane is a student at St. Patrick’s and St. Brigid’s in Claudy. The H.O.P.E. project is the first time that Mark has ever tried working in a garden with a team out. Mark said he was enjoying the project but added that despite his desire to get his hands dirty, he still didn’t like vegetables.

“It’s been good fun here today,” said Mark.

“I have met a lot of new people and have enjoyed learning new skills. I think that if I do well I might be able to start helping out at home too.

Mark O'Kane, left, and Michael Leath working with Gareth Austin at the Hope Horticultural Project. (2109PG57)

Mark O'Kane, left, and Michael Leath working with Gareth Austin at the Hope Horticultural Project. (2109PG57)

“I don’t really like vegetables but I suppose I can put up with potatoes - I love chips.”

Mark is also a fan of W.W.E. and his favourite wrestler is John Cena.

“Even if John Cena said he liked vegetables, it wouldn’t make me eat them,” he laughed.

Clare Houstan is Mark’s classroom assistant and she accompanied him on his first day at the H.O.P.E. project.

“I am only here with Mark for his first day - after that he’ll be coming here on his own.

“He’ll come here for two days every week and to be honest with you, I am really, really going to miss him.

“I think it’s great that Mark is getting the chance to mix with other young people and hopefully by the end of it all he’ll be able to show me how to grow my own vegetables,” she laughed.

Damian Irwin, 16, is from Ballymagroarty. Damian is a student at Belmont House Special School, and just before the interview starts he’s busy helping the rest of the team prepare the flowerbeds for their new seeds.

“Hello, how are you doing? I am Damian,” he said breathlessly.

“The thing I like the most about the H.O.P.E. project is that we get out of the classroom. I like working with my hands and I am also excited at the prospect of learning new skills and working in a team.”

Like Mark, Damian is not a fan of vegetables but said that would make an exception for a few hom-e grown spuds.

“I don’t like vegetables at all but I love potatoes - I can eat them mashed, roasted or as chips - I am really looking forward to growing some.”

Bronagh McDaid, 16, lives in Muff. There’s a broad smile on Bronagh’s face as she helps the rest of the team out and she explained why it is she wants to grow her own carrots.

“I have a few horses and my daddy helps me to look after them. My favourite horse is called Fantastic Romeo - he likes carrots.

“Maybe if I do well and work hard I’ll grow some of my own carrots and take them home and feed them to Romeo.”

Bronagh, a Belmont House student, said that she was looking forward to learning new skills and meeting new people.

“I don’t know everyone here but they all seem nice - it’ll be good fun working in a team together.

“I can wait to find out how to grow and look after my own vegetables. I don’t really mind eating them too much but I’ll have to wait and see how our ones turn out first.”

Michael Leath, 23, from the Crescent Link, is involved with Mencap and believes that the H.O.P.E. project will help him to realise his ambition of working with young people with learning difficulties.

“I am looking forward to the whole experience. There’s so much to be excited about.

“In the future I want to work with young people with learning difficulties and help them.

“I am one of the biggest on the scheme so I will probably be landed with all of the heavy lifting,” he joked.

Anne-Marie Donnelly, H.O.P.E. project co-ordinator, said that she was excited about the scheme’s new intake of participants and said that she had no doubt that everyone involved would benefit.

“It’s a great scheme and one that we can all benefit from.

“The volunteers and the young people are the ones who make the course what it is.

“I have no doubt that we’ll be enjoying the best vegetables in Derry by the time the course is over in two years time.

“The programme allows individuals to participate in society through activities that will improve their skills and allow them the opportunity to integrate with others. Participants have the opportunity to undertake ASDAN accredited training providing them with Independent Living Skills and the knowledge to cope with the life changing event of transition .Participants also undertake a vocational City & Guilds qualification in Horticulture which is facilitated by the North West Regional College (N.W.R.C.).

“Here they have the opportunity to grow plants and vegetables and are involved in a plethora of activities including community gardening; allotment maintenance; environmental awareness schemes; personal development: networking and teambuilding. This is utilised to build confidence and aspirations, promote social inclusion and enhance community accessibility.”

Horticulture lecturer at N.W.R.C., Gareth Austin, is helping to facilitate the scheme. Gareth said that if the group manage to replicate the enthusiasm for gardening he witnessed on the first day he was sure that the scheme would be a success.

“The young people are really excited. They are willing to get their hands dirty and work hard. There are a few characters in the group and I am sure we are going to have plenty of fun along the way.”

The Liberty Consortium’s HOPE Transition Project is funded by the Big Lottery Fund Reaching Out – Empowering Young People Programme

For further information go to Facebook: www.facebook.com/theplaytrail or email annemarie@playtrail.com