Kids reaping benefits of country life

14 August 2019 | West and South West England

Future Roots

Brilliant farming scheme helps youngsters stay out of trouble.

Nestled in the rolling green hills of Dorset, Sherbourne is a picture postcard town.

But young people here face many of the same challenges as kids in inner-city London, Birmingham or Manchester.

From gangs and drugs to anti-social behaviour and exclusion from school, it can be hard for children who find themselves on the margins.

And they are the young people Julie Plumley has made it her mission to help.

The former social worker is the founder and driving force behind Future Roots, a groundbreaking farming project.

“They say never work with children or animals, and I work with both,” laughs Julie, as she explains the thinking behind the 30-acre homestead she opened on the outskirts of Sherbourne nearly 15 years ago.

The groundbreaking therapeutic farm uses agriculture and the countryside to reach out to youngsters on the margins of society.

At the farm they aim to re-engage marginalised young people and instil in them a love of learning and the outdoors.

Among the hundreds of teenagers who have been helped are friends Charlie and Leah, who visit several times a week after being excluded from school.

Both credit the farm for making them calmer and happier. They have also benefited greatly from the English and maths skills they are taught most mornings.

Charlie, 15, who is fostered by her grandparents, says: “We are like a family here and we all get along. But the best thing for me is just being around all the animals. The animals don’t judge you, they don’t insult you. I was here when Kylie the calf was born last June, so I have watched her grow up. I have a really special bond with her. One of my most special moments when she lay down and put her head in my lap and fell asleep.

“This place has completely changed me and my life. Before, I was getting in trouble with the police and the school was kicking me out twice a week. I just found it hard to concentrate in lessons and got frustrated.”

Leah, 17, is fostered by her aunt and uncle. She says: “They understand us here, understand why we act why do, and are much more patient. Julie is so helpful and willing to help us in any way. Because of her, my confidence has really grown and I am hopeful I will have a successful life.”

Young people referred to the farm develop work skills such as communication, problem solving and planning. They also learn life skills such as healthy living and nutrition by feeding and caring for livestock, cleaning and maintaining the farm, and harvesting fruit and vegetables. On any given day they can get involved in anything from sheep shearing to mucking out and feeding pygmy goats.

Youngsters also undertake vocational training courses to gain qualifications for a career in agriculture, horticulture or animal care. Some go on to become apprentices.

Since Future Roots welcomed its first participant, more than 1,000 young people have come through the farm gate.

“We try and offer something different, and it seems to be working,” explains Julie. “In an ideal scenario a child is not excluded from school but if they are, we are here to help.

“The farm is powerful as we have a space here and the animals. But really, it also the mentoring we do and the commitment we give them that keeps them here.

“I really believe that where there is life, there is hope. Young people can change. My belief is there always a key, and a solution.”

Julie, who has been involved in social work for 30 years, adds: “I honestly have never met a bad young person. If there is bad behaviour, there is always a reason for it. I want this to be a safe place for the youngsters who come here.”

Around 85 young people a week are referred from across Dorset and South Somerset, supported by a team of 24 staff and volunteers.

Some come once a week, some two or three times a week and the majority are boys aged between 13 and 16. Future Roots also works with 22 schools and two local authorities.

Julie says that as well as practical skills, the outdoor life teaches young people resilience too. She adds: “Coming here they have to work in all weathers, the biting cold, wind and rain. Every child is made to feel welcome here and safe. It is all about building up resilience, confidence and a sense of belonging. We also want to get them to follow things through, see progress, so if they see some hens eggs hatch it is nice to see them grow up. That gives them a sense of responsibility.

“The cows are among the most popular. You would be surprised how many lads are scared when they first turn up. I asked one boy to go and pet one, and he said ‘are you mad?’. But soon enough he was mucking them out and enjoying all their different characters.”

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