Building people up

2 April 2019 | Wales

Mark McKenna, co-founder of Down to Earth

Transforming lives through sustainability projects.

A groundbreaking social initiative near Swansea is working with vulnerable young people and adults to transform their lives by embracing the great outdoors.

Community project Down to Earth, on the Gower Peninsula, was founded by husband and wife team Mark and Jen McKenna back in 2005. The couple are former youth workers who are also passionate about sustainability, and see the project as a way of bringing both aspects together.

Now they work with around 500 people a year in an effort to reduce depression, isolation and tackle mental health issues. There is also the opportunity to gain qualifications in first aid, health and safety, carpentry and woodland management.

“We work with adults who have suffered traumatic brain injuries - in a car accident for example,” explained Mark. “We offer neuro rehabilitation. That basically means our outdoor programmes and practical tasks help the brain recover.

“Then we also work with people from a local secure mental health hospital who are transitioning back into the community. Our other main health board group are young people aged between 16 and 24 suffering from psychosis. With them we work on an early intervention programme.”

Those who come to the project work on sustainable building projects like timber framing, straw bale building, earth building and dry stone walling and more. In fact, both their training venues were built from scratch using natural materials by participants.

Meanwhile they also offer adventure activities include tree climbing, coasteering, abseiling, rock climbing and kayaking. Their holistic approach means participants can also embrace the simple pleasures of picking home-grown fruit and vegetables and cooking on outdoor fire pits. Both sites have smallholdings which are organically managed and include a herd of rare breed pigs.

Mark explained: “It is about making our participants feel valued, trusted and that they are making a tangible difference. It is about forming a peer group and working together. It helps process what you are going through when you are kept busy doing something with your hands.

“It’s also about showing people their potential. People are often told they can’t do something. We show them anything is possible. If you can hold a drill, you can learn to use a power drill. If you can use a power tool, you can build a house.

“We’ve worked with thousands of vulnerable and disadvantaged young people and adults. We have supported them to transform not only their own lives but also numerous community centres, education centres and two stunning venues on the Gower Peninsula in Swansea.

“We really believe that even the most so-called hard to reach people can thrive.”

When Alan Gee fell off a roof he suffered a serious brain injury. His self-esteem also hit rock bottom. He could barely walk or talk, but as part of his treatment he was brought to the centre. He helped build the project’s residential centre and credits it for saving his life and marriage. “I was able to help do the jobs, but also help other people. It brought value back to my life.”

And his wife says they are only still together because he was offered this free treatment on the NHS.

The team are already excited about their next project. They have won funding to build six new affordable and sustainable homes. The pilot, which will start this summer will see participants at the project build the new houses themselves.

“Getting the community building their own homes whilst delivering health care at the same time is not something that has ever happened before,” says Mark. “In one sweep we can look to tackle the issues of poverty, unemployment, health and the shortage of affordable housing.”

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