The Daily Telegraph - Saturday

‘I FEEL SAFE IN THE GARDEN AND SUNNYSIDE NEEDS ME’

Michelle Chamberlai­n and Hollie Rose, Hertfordsh­ire

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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.

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 ?? Michelle Chamberlai­n at the Central Nursery in Hemel Hempstead ?? i Hollie Rose in the Sunnyside Rural Trust gardens in Berkhamste­ad j
Michelle Chamberlai­n at the Central Nursery in Hemel Hempstead i Hollie Rose in the Sunnyside Rural Trust gardens in Berkhamste­ad j

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