‘The allocation is good for the community’

I tap on the kettle in the small kitchen of the allotment garden and look out over the landscape. Three large polytunnels house plump figs and grapes, which grow beautifully; the freshly sown vegetable garden begins to produce green shoots; and the apple trees seem ready to be pruned. As I stir the milk into my tea, I wave to the fellow volunteers who walk towards us, ready to start another day of gardening.

Just over a year ago I joined the Escape Allotment and Discovery Garden Project in Norfolk after seeing it advertised on a local Facebook page. I have always been a nature lover and an avid amateur gardener, so I hoped I would have some skills. When I arrived at the Escape Project, one of the two coordinators, Tess, explained how it supports adults with learning disabilities and mental health problems, as connecting with nature improves participants’ wellbeing and also helps build their self-confidence.

“It’s all about building resilience in the community”

So I started volunteering at Escape one day a week. Depending on the day (and the weather!) there can be between two and a dozen people working on the allotments, and there is a whole mix of people involved. We organize special days for neurodivergent members and I love getting creative and organizing special events with the team, such as music sessions and themed lunches for occasions like Earth Day. It’s all about building community resilience by teaching people how to grow their own food and helping them develop self-sufficiency skills.

There’s something about having your hands in the dirt that feels so peaceful and therapeutic, which is why it works well for people struggling with their mental well-being. It’s so satisfying to see members looking lighter and happier than when they arrived, and to know that I played a part in that.

Every morning, Tess and the team are always ready with a plan for what needs to be done. Depending on the time of year, we do everything from sowing seeds to harvesting the fruits of our labor – and there’s plenty of maintenance in between too, like pruning, watering and monitoring the crops. I always enjoy guiding new members and I enjoy being stuck in myself. We distribute what we grow to everyone who comes along, while the surplus goes to a food bank in a nearby community center.

“Members leave lighter and happier”

One weekend last summer we decided to arrange something a little different for everyone and borrowed an apple press from a local National Trust property. It was quite a sticky day, but I could see how much people were enjoying squeezing apples from the trees they had grown themselves.

I like knowing that I can provide something of value to my neighborhood, and that I can bring home fresh food for my partner, Geoff, and children, Rosie, five, and Rowan, three. Through the Escape Project I have also gained access to several courses accredited by City & Guilds. I have now qualified with a Level Two Diploma in Practical Horticulture Skills, completing practical on-site work on the allotment over a 14 week period.

I learned about soil health and nutrition, controlling weeds, and identifying worms and insects. I am happy that I will be starting a paid part-time position in assignment later this year. Even though I am now moving towards a career in horticulture, I will always continue to volunteer because giving back is an investment in well-being – not only for yourself, but also for those around you. I’m proud to be part of something that has such a positive ripple effect and nourishes our community in many ways.

How to volunteer


Family action

What is the allocation?

The Escape Allotment and Discovery Garden Project in Norfolk helps adults connect with nature, as well as others in their community, by learning to garden and eating what they grow.

How often should I volunteer?

For as little as three hours a week, you can help maintain the allotment garden and make people feel welcome in all kinds of activities, from daily gardening to special events. And you can eat your efforts!

What training do I need?

Specific horticultural skills can be learned on the allotment garden. If you wish, you can apply to take part in more formal training courses accredited by City & Guilds.

To apply, visit family-action.org.uk/volunteer or email [email protected] for more information