‘An incredible act of giving’: a gard
CHRIS EVANS, THE BUTTERFLY GARDEN, CHELTENHAM From the outside, Dundry Nurseries looks like any other out-of-town garden centre, promoting their winter pansies and Christmas bulbs, with an on-site pet shop and café. Inside, however, go through the shop, past raised beds packed full of seasonal plants, through a gap in the hedge, and you’re in another world – the Butterfly Garden. This educational gardening and land skills charity, launched in 2002, is run for students of all ages and disablements. Working outside or undercover in greenhouses, gardening brings students out into the daylight. The first six were autistic, but now up to 30 students a day can turn up from anywhere, either referred by authorities or having heard about the project on the grapevine. There are people with Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy, trauma, mental health problems and refugees with disabilities. It is a safe place where there is no prejudice, a real community. No one pays to come to the Butterfly Garden, and no one gets paid. Volunteers come from far and wide. Some are curious neighbours, catching a glimpse, and are then hooked. Others, like Liz Fallon, are ex-teachers or horticulturists. Liz used to volunteer through Thrive, helping one day a week, now she spends her whole working week here. Another, Judy Mitchell, explains the special appeal of the Butterfly Garden. “This place is fantastic. Time and effort is spent finding out what’s right for students. Initially, it’s gardening or recycling, but if that doesn’t suit, we find them something else they enjoy. It’s a place where everyone gets the chance to shine.” Overseeing the whole, is an extraordinary ring master, Chris Evans. Endlessly affable, he has loved gardening since he was nine, and never questioned following his father and grandfather into the business. He has never been interested in chasing profits. Fifty years on, he says: “I got the cake with this business, but it’s the Butterfly Garden that’s the icing.” Unfettered by the strangleholds of bureaucracy, while his staff carry on with the day-to-day running of the nursery, Chris spends his time listening and reassuring, creating a safe haven for his community, and in his spare time, fundraising. A new purposebuilt venue and classroom was opened recently by the Duchess of Gloucester. It offers massage, belly dancing, cooking, knitting and drumming lessons in the warm and dry. Some of the students propagate shrubs that wholesale to this and other businesses. While Chris and I chat in the cosy café, run by trustee Sue Dove, students wander in and out, interested in our conversation, interrupting and adding their opinions. Everyone is listened to and respected. I meet Eid Hijazi, originally from Dubai, who has learning difficulties, but calmly helped organise the group and props for our photos. He loves propagating and pruning, describing himself as “Alan Titchmarsh”. Matthew Bush, who is 24 and enjoys strimming and digging, helped turn the derelict two-acre plot next door into a meadow, pond and wildlife area. Dressed in orange overalls, he’s ambitious to learn to use the chainsaw, and will be first in the queue for one of Chris’s future schemes – driving lessons. Chris says many people with disablements, when offered encouragement and training, become very good indeed at the things they are good at. This attitude has changed hundreds of people’s lives for the better, and he’s repaid with the knowledge that they are either happy to stay with him or, with boosted confidence, have moved on to other things. I imagine that everyone who visits the Butterfly Garden – customers, staff, volunteers, even passing visitors like myself, and of course students – leaves feeling better. This is how care in the community should work, but it needs enablers like Chris Evans to make it happen, and Chris is a very rare bird indeed.
THE JUDGES SAID
Richard Reynolds: “A strong example of obsessive passion, encouraging endorsement from others.” Richard Vine: “An incredible act of giving.” Tim Richardson: “Particularly impressive, A social entrepreneur who sees a need and creates from scratch.”
Helping hands: founder Chris Evans, centre, is joined by David Miles, Troy Knight, Gerald Toplis, Alaistar Jepson