From young shoots...

Lambeth in south London is one of the most socially deprived boroughs of the UK, but an unlikely horticulture project is sowing seeds of sufficiency for teenagers, writes Nathalie Thomas.

A young worker tends the roots and shoots garden
A young worker tends the roots and shoots garden

On a cold, drizzly morning along Kennington Road in south London, two young men unload a mountain bike from a van parked behind a run-down council housing block. They're dressed in loosefitting clothes and one has his MP3 player on. "Let's leg it," one shouts.

Such a scene isn't uncommon in Lambeth, the London borough well known for its high crime rates and gang culture. But what happens next is a little more surprising. The young men - one white, one black - laugh, disappear around the corner and come back balancing a tray of seedlings in each hand. It's 9.30am and they're already wide awake and getting on with their day's work, loading the van up with plants.

The two, both in their late teens, are trainees at Roots and Shoots, a small charity set up in 1982 by Linda Phillips, who trained at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, south London. Roots and Shoots is an alternative form of training for 16 to 19-year-olds who, for various reasons, have dropped out of mainstream education and are struggling to find employment. It offers young people who have suffered from problems such as bullying at school, behavioural issues, learning difficulties or long periods of absenteeism the chance to acquire skills in horticulture or retail that they can then use in the workplace.

"We get the ones who have had a bad time at school, who may have learning or emotional problems, the ones who would not be able to go straight to college or into work from leaving school because it's too big, too frightening and they won't cope," explains Phillips. "The idea is to help them find and keep employment."

Work experience

The charity, which in 2005 had an income of little more than £350,000, takes between 18 and 20 youths a year. It teaches them essential maths and English, allows them to study towards an NVQ in horticulture or retail, sets them up with work experience placements and helps them to write documents such as CVs. It also works in partnership with another small third sector organisation to give the trainees computer training.

Situated in half an acre of lush, green gardens along the aptly named Walnut Tree Walk in SE11, Roots and Shoots is a picture of tranquillity. Neville, the charity cat, strolls through flowerbeds full of exotic plants such as echiums - tall, purple-flowered plants native to the Canary Islands - as the trainees buzz around the site, one picking lettuce for the resident geckos, another busying herself around the kitchen area. With such calm surroundings, it's little wonder that Roots and Shoots has had only a tiny drop-out rate over the past 25 years.

"What's different is that we don't treat them like children; we treat them like young adults, and they have a responsibility for their own learning," says Phillips. "We also work with parents. We basically want the youngsters to succeed."

It's also not surprising that Roots and Shoots recently attracted the attention of Prince Charles, who visited the charity in June to open its new premises, a £1.3m eco-building complete with sheep's wool insulation, a water recycling system and green roofs.

Things haven't always been so glamorous, however. For most of its existence, Roots and Shoots was housed in a small, dingy prefab hut. "It had an asbestos roof, there was a hole in the roof, it leaked. And we had mice," says Phillips.

Before the prefab hut, things were even bleaker. "The only plants on the whole site were a white lilac and a bit of grass, and the rear of the site was full of tin," says Phillips. "The site had been a factory up to the last war and garages until the 70s."

So how did such a small charity with just a handful of staff go from rags to relative riches? "I've got a very good team of trustees," says Phillips. "Lambeth council has also been very helpful. We've been helped to access those funds that small organisations can't usually access."

Funding streams

Phillips says she has succeeded in developing a reasonably good relationship with council workers over the years, and they have sometimes pointed out new funding streams that might suit the charity. "What happens is that pots of money open and close and things that you wouldn't normally hear about are heard by the council," she says. "For example, we managed to get £850,000 from the London Development Agency."

But before the Office of the Third Sector lines Roots and Shoots up as a beacon of good partnership working with local government, Phillips injects some realism. "Councils change, government departments change and funding streams always change," she says. "It's a big cycle. The new ideas aren't that different from the old ideas; they just have to have different names."

Phillips says that not a day goes by without her having to think about funding applications. Even after 25 years, she's still having to apply for funding to secure her own job. "I always have to have money on my mind," she says.

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