I have been enormously lucky to spend a week volunteering at the Jamie’s Farm charity in Hereford. For the young people that it serves, the charity provides a family-like support environment, combined with enjoyable and challenging learning experiences working on a farm. Set on an idyllic farmhouse in stunning Herefordshire countryside, it’s a sanctuary from the environment and experiences that the young people may face normally.
Pleasant as the environment is, it’s a week of really hard work on the farm, with a packed agenda depending on what needs doing that week. This week, the young people fed pigs, sheep, calves, bulls, cows, chickens and goats, cleaned out the pigs, moved sheep and pigs around the farm (a lot harder than it sounds), helped a neighbouring farmer to round up and weigh his sheep, chopped wood, gardened and picked fruit and vegetables, cooked all the healthy meals we ate here, cleared a garden gate to a new field and built a chicken coup, shoe rack and garden bench.
Every day the children are active from 7am to 9pm. Apart from the farm activities they go for 1-2 hour walks each day with the farm dogs in the beautiful countryside. Towards the end of the week, the walk was much longer, up a local hiking hill called The Cat’s Back. It was a challenging walk and the young people supported each other to reach the top – the views over the countryside from the top were spectacular.
To fuel all of this activity the young people are fed a really healthy diet which is thoughtfully prepared to include only natural sugars and keep them going through the day. A really entertaining Chef Mati, helps the young people to prepare these nutritious meals; second helpings are encouraged and there are always clean plates at the end of the meals. The children leave with copies of the Jamie’s Farm cookbook to carry on at home.
The staff at the farm are just some of the most amazing, kind and gentle people that you will meet, who still manage to maintain authority. They all speak with the same voice; calm and supportive. They give structured positive feedback to all the children in meetings after mealtimes, and encourage the young people to give “shout outs” of positive feedback to each other.
The children get the opportunities to explore their thoughts, feelings and challenges through some very skilfully run group talking sessions and also have the opportunity to have 1:1 chats with the Therapy lead. I was hugely impressed with how the children engaged with these sessions and really seemed to benefit from talking in groups and sharing their thoughts and feelings.
Everything is done with a feeling of effortlessness, like nothing is forced. There’s clearly been a vast amount of preparation and thoughtfulness that’s gone into creating this experience, but everything feels very natural. The group games that are interjected and played several times a day are huge fun and get everyone energised and enjoying each other’s company. There’s a feeling that there is a cumulative effect of all the work that happens during the week that builds up to give a total effect that is greater than the sum of the parts.
The week culminates in a celebration meeting, in which the staff provide positive feedback on the progress that each young person has made during the week. It’s a really moving and genuine experience, which I think will undoubtedly boost the confidence and reinforce the positive behaviours of all the young people here.
Over the week, I’ve seen these young people really make a huge transformation; they are positively beaming and glowing. I think that this combination of all of this really skilfully blended set of activities and support has given these young people self-belief and a break in their normal frame of reference, showing them a different way of behaving and being.
I’ve been hugely impressed with how some of them have reflected on their experience here and worked out for themselves behaviour changes and coping mechanisms that they will take back into their normal lives. They’ve certainly developed strong bonds with each other when at the start of the week, most of them didn’t know anyone in the group.
I’ve learned a huge amount, not just seeing first-hand what a positive impact the charity has on young people, but I’ve also been pushed out of my comfort zone and learned more about myself, not least some skills about how I could improve my relationships with my own children and the benefits of kindness and feeling accepted into a group of others.
I’ve found this experience to be quite magical and I know that this will stay with me. One of the young people said to me a breakfast on the last day, beaming, “Will you remember this place? I know I will remember it for a very long time.” I do feel very confident that it will be a hugely positive influence on these young people which will make a lasting impact on their lives.
Written by the lovely Mark Sutton, Director of Technology at TeachFirst, who volunteered with Jamie’s Farm at Hereford in June 2017.
If you are interested in volunteering for a week with Jamie’s Farm, at any of our Bath, Hereford or Monmouth sites then do get in touch with Katie Francis (firstname.lastname@example.org ) who will be able to provide you with further information and an application form.