The Daily Telegraph - Saturday
‘I FEEL SAFE IN THE GARDEN AND SUNNYSIDE NEEDS ME’
Michelle Chamberlain and Hollie Rose, Hertfordshire
For Michelle Chamberlain and Hollie Rose, long-term trainees at Sunnyside Rural Trust in Hertfordshire, the charity’s two garden sites are a sanctuary. After both enduring difficulties at school, the women now work alongside a community of more than 130 people at the charity that supports and encourages their work.
To say that Sunnyside’s Hemel Food Garden couldn’t run without Chamberlain (right), of Hemel Hempstead, would be an understatement.
Since joining in 2011, the 35-year-old trainee, who has learning disabilities and severe depression, has been instrumental in shaping the way the charity recruits trainees and structures volunteering.
“Before I found gardening, I struggled with day-to-day bits. At times I would get up but couldn’t do anything, so I’d sit at home in my flat,” she says. But her confidence grew. Chamberlain and Keely Siddiqui-Charlick, chief executive of Sunnyside, now work together to recruit the team, which, they tell me, sometimes uncovers hidden prejudice in interviewees.
“Often,” says Siddiqui-Charlick, “they’ll just look at me and not Michelle. That’s not on, is it?” Still, Chamberlain, keeps her cool. “I take it easy,” she says. For the past few years, she and her team have been growing thousands of perennials for various contracts – including Tom Stuart-Smith’s RHS Hampton Court show garden – and, each year, the facility can grow up to 100,000 flowers for the local community.
Many of the plants grown at the garden will be planted on roundabouts and communal spots. “It’s amazing to help people out,” she says. An on-site bakery – where Chamberlain, a talented baker, is considering selling her wares – is also being built. Despite some medical scares, Chamberlain’s commitment knows no bounds. In 2019, she suffered life-threatening encephalitis.
“I thought it was all over,” she says. “But Sunnyside gave me a reason to live and the garden needed me.” She now works four days a week. “The impact [of gardening] on my depression has been so positive and, although I still struggle, it has given me a reason to get up.”
When Hollie Rose, of Berkhamsted, started school, she was quickly made aware that she was different from other kids. As a student with Tourette’s syndrome and learning disabilities, Rose says the time was particularly difficult.
“I have never fitted in, anywhere, and I felt like no one saw me or listened to me,” she says. “No one asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. They picked on me because of how different I was.”
Rose left school at 16, started a twoyear course through Transition – as part of the special educational needs and disability programme – and eventually joined Sunnyside Rural Trust in 2014 after a few of her old school friends told her how great the charity was.
Now a 30-year-old trainee, she says: “When I first started, I was doing two days at Northchurch and two days at Hemel Food Garden.” Now, she works with those friends, Michelangelo, Simon and Gemma, on the plot.
She says: “Plants accept me for who I am. I feel safe in the garden and it needs me.” In 2018, Rose lost her mother, Elaine. Helped by her wages from Sunnyside, she was able to step up and help her father with the cost of the funeral; Rose was also offered a patch of land at the Northchurch site to dedicate to her mother’s life.
“Everyone was sorry that my mum was gone,” Rose says. “The garden saved me from being stuck at home all the time.” In 2017, inspired by Rose’s hard work, Sunnyside put her forward for the John Muir Award. She passed with flying colours for vegetable growing – particularly radishes (her favourite) – and for the stunning on-site pond she made. “I was so proud,” she says.
Nowadays, Rose looks after the animals (there are more than 300 chickens, no easy feat) and grows vegetables to sell in veg boxes in the shop. “I wanted to give up but Sunnyside can’t run without me and the garden needed me to come back,” she says.
“I can cry and laugh while gardening and talk as much as I like. I don’t have to just keep thinking about all the bad stuff. I have a job to do.”
‘At times I would get up but I couldn’t do anything, so I’d sit at home in my flat’
Sunnyside Rural Trust (sunnyside ruraltrust.org.uk) is a charity and social enterprise that offers training and work experience for more than 130 vulnerable people in the local community.