Friday 20 October 2017

Diarmuid Gavin: Sowing dreams

A new initiative by Down Syndrome Cork shows gardening's full potential as a social force

Seeds of change: Down Syndrome Cork sees gardening as a tool for empowerment
Seeds of change: Down Syndrome Cork sees gardening as a tool for empowerment

Diarmuid Gavin

Today, Saturday, sees a real celebration of how gardening can help give people an aim and purpose in life, with the launch of Field of Dreams - a new centre of garden creativity and craft made by Down Syndrome Cork.

Located on agricultural land given over by the Munster Agriculture Society at Curraheen, a three-acre plot has been transformed, with permissions granted by Cork County Council, into something magical: an educational and work-based horticultural site that will function as a market garden.

Through a blend of structured programmes - including cookery, IT, retail, hospitality and drama - participants with Down syndrome will enjoy the opportunity to enhance their existing work and life skills in a horticultural environment.

This initiative illustrates a wonderful aspect of gardening - how it has multiple benefits and can improve lives once we embrace the possibilities of working with nature. All of us can benefit by engaging with this craft in a number of ways. Perhaps it may be by simply enjoying our gardens.

I've just returned from 10 days of far-flung journeys, and wandering through my plot examining how it's changed, seeing what's in flower or what's passed for the year, reminds me how much I love it - and how much has been achieved since we started on the garden-making journey.

For many of us, gardens are peaceful, restorative places, and just being out in the fresh air while planting, pruning, pulling weeds and tending plants counts as one of life's most simple and rewarding pleasures.

Mental health, and depression in particular, is increasingly acknowledged as an issue for all age groups. Gardening has been proven to trigger our natural production of happy chemicals which can contribute to keeping depression at bay. We achieve real results when we get our hands into the soil, weeding, sowing and harvesting food and flowers.

The simple act of getting your hands dirty in the garden can increase your serotonin levels: contact with soil and a specific soil bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae, triggers the release of serotonin in our brain. Serotonin is a happy chemical, a natural anti-depressant which strengthens the immune system.

When we harvest products from the garden, our brain releases dopamine. It is thought that this response evolved over hundreds of thousands of years of hunter-gathering - when food was found, a flush of dopamine released in the reward centre of the brain triggered a state of bliss or mild euphoria. The dopamine release could be triggered by the sight of food, as well as the action of plucking the fruit.

These benefits of gardening have long been recognised through social and therapeutic horticultural initiatives, which use gardening and plants to help individuals develop. The many benefits accruing from schemes which operate around the country include employment, skills development, interaction with others, esteem building, physical activity, rehabilitation, passive activity and food growing.

Now, Down Syndrome Cork has embraced the concept of change and inclusion through gardening, to illustrate what adults with Down syndrome can achieve and what children with Down syndrome can aspire to.

As 95pc of adults with Down syndrome are currently unemployed, a key element of the programme will be collaborating with businesses in Cork, supporting them in offering work experience/job placement opportunities to Field of Dreams graduates. Already companies such as Keelings, Marks & Spencer and C-Field Construction are involved in the scheme. So, Cork's Field of Dreams will become a meaningful place of learning and experiences for adults in a secure, inspirational and fun environment. It's envisaged that this will lead to the project being replicated by other branches of Down Syndrome Ireland across the country.

I'll be there today, celebrating the achievement of the members of the group, their families and friends, and helping to kick off a magnificent project, which, it is hoped, will inspire others to make things happen and give control back to people with special needs, who are an oft neglected and undervalued sector of our society.

Through gardening, the Field of Dreams participants will flourish, achieve and explore their own potential fully. And Cork will pioneer a new way of advancing people power for the betterment of our communities.

For more information, see downsyndromecork.ie

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