Seeds of Change
From an article by Local Trust
Local Trust was established in 2012 to deliver Big Local, a National Lottery Community Fund-funded programme which committed £1m each to 150 neighbourhoods across England.
They believe there is a need to put more power, resources and decision-making into the hands of local communities, to enable them to transform and improve their lives and the places in which they live. They do this by trusting local people. Their aims are to demonstrate the value of long term, unconditional, resident-led funding supporting local communities making their areas better places to live, and to draw on the learning from their work in order to promote a wider transformation in the way policy makers, funders and others engage with communities and place.
Here is a case study of Julie Loftus of Brinnington, Stockport, Manchester and how she's using horticulture to improve her community's health:
Julie Loftus chairs the Green Thumbs community garden initiative, which in November 2021 won gold in the annual Stockport Homes STAR awards for its outstanding contribution to the community. Julie is articulate, confident and energetic. It’s hard to imagine that not long ago, her depression was so crippling that she couldn’t leave the house.
“I just stayed indoors for like, four years,” she says. “At one point I was so bad, I would just refuse point blank to be seen in daylight.”
Julie, 59, suffered from alcoholism and was eventually drinking a bottle of vodka a day. “How I’m alive, I don’t know. I really don’t know.”
Nowadays, she says, “They can’t keep me inside. I’ve always said this – there’s just something about the soil. If I’m having a down day, and I go and do some digging or gardening, it just lifts me up.”
Julie’s struggles might have been solitary but she is far from alone in them. Brinnington, perched on a hill above the Tame river valley in the northeast of Stockport, is home to just under 8,000 people – about a quarter of whom have a serious health condition. About 8 per cent of residents receive benefits for mental health conditions. In 2019, a local GP estimated the rate of depression in Brinnington at 24 per cent – compared with a national average of about 10 per cent. An article subsequently appeared in The Guardian about Brinnington, entitled: “Is this the most depressed place in England?”
And without a single exception, everyone I meet in Brinnington mentions the article – defiantly. Locals argue that the characterisation of the estate was misrepresentative at best, if not wilfully misleading. They say that the higher reported rates of depression are down to the fact that people are just more open in Brinnington – more willing to talk about their depression or anxiety. Julie says, "I’ll be honest. I think it’s a fantastic community. I really do. There’s always something going on.”
The Green Thumbs garden is on the corner of Northumberland Road, which police once named one of the three worst roads in north Stockport. Now, it’s a place where any and all members of the community – pensioners, people with disabilities, refugees, children – can either apply for a raised bed, or drop in on a Saturday “for a chat and a brew”, to learn about gardening or just sit and enjoy nature. At ‘Natter in Nature’, Julie is always there to listen. “My experience is probably why I can get on with people. It’s hard to explain, but I can sit and listen because I can probably identify with a lot of people up here, especially with the alcoholism and loneliness.”
Julie’s parents also struggled with alcoholism, which is why she was put on a protection order when she was just five. Julie would go on to be fostered by the same woman three separate times. At 18, Julie gave birth to a little girl and as a single mother, got her own flat in Stockport. She would later have a boy and another girl, but when her daughter was just three years old, she died from meningitis.
For many years, Julie had struggled on and off with depression, and as a young woman once attempted suicide – but her mental health dramatically deteriorated when her children left home. She had broken up with her partner and she was alone except for what she describes as “drinking friends”. “Like attracts like, don’t it?”
But about 12 years ago, her cousin was trying to rehome a dog, and Julie felt sorry for the unwanted animal – a Staffie named DFOR. “I still remember that it was a Tuesday morning, at 9:30am, and I went and picked him up. I walked him home, I sat here with him and I looked at him and just thought, the dog needs me. The vodka doesn’t. And that was the turning point … that’s all I needed.”
She went to her doctor for help giving up vodka, and started going back outside. Julie had helped her stepfather in his award-winning garden as a child, and as a recovering adult she found that being outdoors in nature, nurturing a plant from seed to leaf, helped her cope. Something about the green space, and the air, helped her “make sense” of what was on her mind.
Soon after, she and a friend were sitting on the bus talking about how the area needed somewhere for locals to garden, “because of all the high rises”. That, she says, is where her conversation would have ended – but her friend became the chair of Brinnington Big Local and secured the funding for the Green Thumbs initiative. Julie got a small plot, “and it just progressed from there”.
She describes going to the local pantry one day “on a downer”, and saying to one of the women there – “I’m going down to the gardens, do you want to have a walk? And she was in the same mindset as me, on a downer, but we cleared a few plots and we came out of there feeling like we’d been to a party.”
Not everything is rosy in Julie’s garden. She still has her down days, she says. Until recently, she was her mother’s sole carer, but when she died in January, Julie was forced to go on “the dreaded Universal Credit”. “I hate it… it’s terrible.”
But, she says, “I’ve got my allotment, I’ve got my garden.”
Now, as chairperson of Green Thumbs, she spends the majority of her time welcoming locals, educating them about gardening, selling cuttings and nurturing her own plants. Since that first Staffie, she has also acquired another two rescue dogs, a tortoise, cockatiel, bearded dragon and ring-necked parakeet that screeches when her phone rings. She’s formed strong attachments to other locals, and is “inseparable” from her best friend. She has recently been made vice chair of Brinnington Big Local.
And the Green Thumbs garden “is just thriving. Everything about it is fantastic. I think every community should have a community garden.”
Do you live in a Big Local area? Do you have an idea to transform and improve lives and the place in which you live? Why not connect with partners there.
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