Nestled within Ashton Park is a very special garden. It started out a seed of an idea but in just four years has blossomed into something much more.
Not only has this disused piece of land been brought back to life and turned into a private sanctuary but it has also helped transform the lives of army veterans and their families recovering with the effects of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other issues.
The Dig In North West project, recognised by a number of community groups in Preston and surrounding district, is now up for a national award having been shortlisted for the Lloyds Bank Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2016 Award.
Thanks to pioneer and horticultural therapist Donna Rowe-Green and her dedicated army of veterans, the garden today offers not just an escape and support network for former soldiers but a number of workshops from carpentry and photography to metal work, helping people to get back on their feet.
Donna says: “I could never have imagined what Dig In would become and that has everything to do with the team. I have a staff of six veterans – some people first came to us just to give themselves something to do – gardening is great therapy but we’ve had veterans satying a few weeks, a few months to the ones we can’t keep away and just love it.”
Donna readily admits she is not a clinician but she has spent many years working with various groups and charities, helping vulnerable and people with physical and learning disabilitie s learn new skills through the art of gardening. Married to an army veteran herself, it was after being made redundant, she had the idea to embark on her own project setting up a new social enterprise for army veterans.
In 2012, she sought the help of the Preston City Council, contacting the park department, in her search for a piece of land. Donna adds: “They were so supportive and have continued to be to this day. They offered us this patch on Ashton Park. It hadn’t been touched in 20 years, it was just a couple of sheds. It was perfect but was going to take a lot of work.”
Within the same year Channel Five showed their interest for the project as part of their television series Operation Homefront
“It was such an opportunity,” says Donna, “The team achieved in one week a task that would have taken us months to do. We not only had a stunning garden but a real base on which to start receiving veterans into the garden much earlier than we otherwise would have.”
Donna says she could not have predicted how the project would take off.
“This is definitely a social enterprise that works well because of the team.
“The staff are all veterans and they have a genuine understanding of each new member that walks through the gates. They provide a positive, supportive environment. There are no expectations on our team members. They can join in with any of the activities or none. If all they want is a brew and a quiet place for a while, we can provide that. The workshop – the ‘man cave’ – provides a variety of workshops led by the veterans.
“Winning the Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award would be an amazing achievement and would allow us to expand the social outreach of Dig In North West and develop a retail unit to sell produces created by the veterans.”
Donna and the team are among five finalists who are in with the chance of winning a £10,000 award. To vote for Donna as Social Entrepreneur of the Year, visit: www.the-sse.org/SEYA or free text SEYA Donna to 67076 Voting closes on 8 October 28.
To find out more visit: http://www.diginnorthwest.org/ or www.facebook.com/DigInNorthWest