The first fully accessible public garden space in Coffs Harbour
Tell us a bit about the background of your city farm project.
Key Employment has been working with people with disability for nearly 30 years, and in that time, we have spent millions supporting various groups and services – particularly those working with disadvantaged young people. We are in the Coffs Chamber of Commerce Hall of Fame and have won many state and regional awards for Community Service. Yet, we always wanted to do more. In early 2016 we purchased the old Catholic Club building with a vision to create a Community Headquarters for Youth, Disability, Employment and Training. Part of that vision was our Youth Hub, which is working really well and provides opportunities for at-risk young people to engage with mainstream programs in a welcoming and safe environment.
One other vision was our City Farm. Our plan was to use some of the old bowling greens to create an accessible sensory garden for people with disability, disadvantage, illness and injury to aid rehabilitation and build mental health and skills. But we ran out of money.
So, how did it go from vision to reality?
A few things … One was the work of our own team, particularly Darren Long, who drew up the plans and kept the concept at the front of our plans. Secondly is the support of a number of businesses, who donated time, equipment, tools and funds to maintain the momentum required to move forward. These include Bunnings, All Areas Demolition and Josh Stokes Earthmoving. Most importantly, and the thing I am most proud of was the support from the community. We had been applying for grants and donations from various bodies for some years, but it was the NSW Government’s My Community Project funding that got us over the line. Thanks to Gurmesh Singh for his support, and then in an online poll we gathered enough local votes to win the grant.
There are several community gardens in the area. What makes this one different and special?
This is so much more than a community garden. Firstly, it is called KEY’S GROWING HEALTHY LIVES FARM. It will be the region’s only fully accessible pocket farm and will meet the needs of people with illness, injury and disability. In particular, the sensory garden will aid rehabilitation and build mental health and skills. It will engage people to share in food or to just use the space for reflection and mindfulness. There will be chooks and bees, as well as a greenhouse and propagation area. AND, it’s going to run off the grid. We will harvest our own water, recycle everything, and use solar power.
Are you targeting the farm to just specific groups, such as people with disability?
No. This farm is for everyone. Of course, there will be a focus on disability, but only insofar as the farm will be fully accessible. This includes those with sensory and psychosocial disability. We are also hoping to provide opportunities for senior citizens and retirees to volunteer in the garden and enjoy the space, as well as passing on skills to others.
There are so many things we want to do in the space. These include growing food to distribute to the needy and establishing demonstration areas where schools can bring students to learn about provenance and healthy eating. We want to provide work experience areas for people interested in working in horticulture, where there is currently a local skill shortage.
In a nutshell, it will provide opportunities for disadvantaged people to participate in community, build resilience, improve mental health, recover from injury, learn new skills and establish pathways to employment. It will provide food and develop education and understanding of healthy lifestyles, support curriculum development in horticulture and food science for local students.
You spoke about the community voting for the farm. What attracted them to your proposal?
I think there has been such a positive response because people are really concerned about the high rate of youth unemployment, and they understand the potential for the farm to address this. Other areas of concern for the community include lack of opportunities for senior citizens, increased obesity rates among the young, and the farm’s ability to focus on these as well as the promotion and education of healthy lifestyles.
So now you have the cash, how will it be carried out?
Key Employment will provide the labour and planning to establish the farm. A committee of volunteers will manage the development and ongoing activities. We have interest from local schools, refugee advocates, Indigenous groups and NDIS providers as well as business to kick-start the project now that it is funded. Once established, it will be self-funded into the future.
We have yet to see any of the funds but expect to be underway in December, when we will hold a sod-turning ceremony where supporters can get the publicity they deserve. We will finish the groundworks drainage construction etc. by April and should see produce, eggs and honey soon after. At any time before that, donations of shrubs, plants etc. will be most welcome.