In early 2022, a seed of an idea was planted: a garden project collaboration between Leeds Irish Health & Homes and Holy Rosary and St Anne’s Primary in Chapeltown.
“We already had an established relationship with LIHH,” explains the school’s Business Manager Jackie Coyle. “During the Covid-19 lockdowns we’d spoken with Siobhan Gaffey from Leeds Irish Health and Homes and set up a penpal programme between some of our keyworker children and isolated members of our community.”
Then earlier this year, the School Council came to teachers with a proposal. “They’d noticed that the Memorial Garden area in the school grounds had become overgrown,” explains Jackie. “They were concerned that it looked like we didn’t care.”
Having secured student and staff support, Jackie reached out to Leeds Irish Health and Homes. Gardening seemed like a great way to connect the Irish in Leeds and the children at the school, located in the heart of what was once a staunchly Irish community.
For the children, the Garden Club is a chance to get outdoors, do some hands-on learning and make new friends. “Some of the children involved can find it difficult to sit and concentrate for long periods, so gardening is a great incentive or reward,” explains Jackie.
“But they’re still learning when they’re outdoors: what grows when, what plants need to thrive, what we can grow to eat.”
The children agree. “We get to play, do stuff, make friends and learn how to do things,” says Malachi in Year 5. “It looks SO much better than it did before!” says another student, also from Year 5.
For the LIHH volunteers - Mary, Tina, Ray, Pauline, Margaret and Mike - the group has been an opportunity to socialise, connect with the younger generation and pass on their knowledge and enthusiasm.
“When I worked for the ambulance service, gardening was the only way I could relax when I got home,” recalls Mary. “And I still love it.”
“It’s been great to get outside and work with the children - it lifts the spirits,” says Ray. “And I’ve loved spending time with the ladies - they remind me of my mum with the stories they tell.”
“My mum was from Roscommon and we lost her at the beginning of Covid. This feels like a way for me to reconnect with Ireland.”
“I’ve got so much more out of this than I thought I would.”
“We’ve always had a great welcome here,” says Tina. Mary agrees. “This school is so warm and welcoming - not like I remember school!”
The project hasn’t been without obstacles. “At first the squirrels were our enemies,” explains Mary. But with the help of some mats and wire, the group managed to save the bulbs they’d planted. “I think we got the better of them,” says Mary.
The group has also prioritised sustainability by reusing and repurposing as many items as possible. The results are astonishing: two new raised beds packed with plants, a rockery, flower beds and a quiet area for prayer, reflection and outdoor learning. There are also decorations aplenty, including hanging baskets, magnets and some cheeky gnomes.
“We’ve had the support of generous donors including Cliff’s Hardware and Mone Bros,” says Siobhan. “We’re so grateful for the plants, gravel and topsoil they’ve donated - it’s made a huge difference.”
The project has even provided an opportunity for the school to learn more about its unrecorded history. Volunteer Ray realised that the group were working directly underneath a rowan tree planted by his brother back in the 70s.
“There was a campaign when the school opened called Plant a Tree in ‘73, and we realised that my brother John had planted this tree,” explains Ray. “There was another campaign the following year called Plant Some More in ‘74.”
“It was a real full circle moment when we realised the connection.”
Jackie is full of optimism for the future. “In the spring, we’ll be looking for more children to join the project; we really want to keep it going,” she says. “The children and the volunteers have got so much out of it and have such a lovely rapport. It’s been such a positive experience.”
Ant Hanlon, CEO of Leeds Irish Health and Homes is equally positive. “We’re delighted to be part of this wonderful collaboration. Everyone has got something really special out of it. It’s been wonderful to witness.”