Family Matters: Personal growth in the great outdoors

FoCAL Sheffield: snow art
FoCAL Sheffield: snow art
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WHEN lots of us were shivering indoors during the snow, an open-air classroom was in full swing, making the most of the winter weather.

Snow sculptures and fire lighting were two of the activities on offer at the FoCAL trai ning centre, based in 11 acres of woodland at Clarion Stables in Dore, Sheffield. The centre has been open since last October and at present just runs sessions on Wednesdays but is looking to expand.

The centre runs classes for young adults with autism, learning difficulties or mental health problems who are looking for a way of making the transition from full-time education to the adult world.

Manager Elly Blackwell, who is only 21 herself, said: “Our vision and aim for the project is ‘igniting, exploring and nurturing, personal growth, possibilities and potential’.

She added: “The idea is for young people to come and learn new skills in a natural environment, using the woodlands and outdoor area available.”

Students can learn coppicing, woodland management, bushcraft, environmental skills and conservation work. Elly said: “We are adopting the forest schools ethos and learning that way of being and learning in the outdoors in a really relaxed environment. We are creating a community where young adults can feel relaxed and where they feel they’re not working, just enjoying it.

“We’re creating a positive lifestyle. It isn’t just about coming along every week doing activities. It is about creating you as a person, making you more confident, more developed, with skills and more able to get along with people and making the decisions you want to make.

“We’re not there saying you have to do this or that, it’s about you doing what you want to do.”

The training is focused around the individual and what they are interested in learning, Elly explained. She gave the example of one young woman: “She is excited about fires and being able to get a fire going on her own. She goes out and makes all the preparations for it, all the wood shavings and tinder, kindling and fire strikers. She will get going with the fire while we’re setting everything up.”

She also wants to improve her reading and writing skills and Elly will be working on that with her.

The sessions often include heading out for a walk and last week Elly’s colleague Emma Conder, who has a background in art, demonstrated how to make snow and ice sculptures. She gathered different containers and put leaves, string and other items in the bottom in a pattern, then filled them with water and left them to freeze.

They have also been learning some woodworking skills, making stools and tables for sitting in the area around the fire.

Another plan is to build a bridge from scratch.

Elly said that parts of the site had been left unfinished deliberately, so that the young people who come can have a say in what the area should look like and help to create the facilities. She said: “It’s important that they feel they have contributed to it.”

When everyone needs to get warmed up, they can go inside a wooden cabin next to the outdoor classroom.

Elly is studying international business management at Cardiff University and working at FoCAL as part of her course. Her mum, Sarah, set the not-for-profit organisation up on land next to the Clarion Stables, that she also runs.

Elly started learning woodland skills when she was 15 and worked after school, running birthday parties at Sheffield Sawmills in Ecclesall Woods.

She loves the job and says: “It is a great place. I come back at the end of the day with a big smile on my face.”

The young people can go to the sessions for as long as they want and most will pay the £50 a day cost out of their personal care budgets. Elly said: “We’re not funded. People are choosing to come to us. Really it is a never-ending programme.”

She said that it was possible to offer qualifications in woodland skills to the young people that could lead to work in coppicing, woodland crafts or conservation.

FoCAL are running two taster sessions on February 14, when young people and their carers, support workers and transition tutors can visit and try out some of the activities on offer. Talbot School in Bents Green is working with FoCAL to publicise the sessions.