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East Clayton Farm in Washington

Jean Rolfe at East Clayton Farm

Published on 3rd January 2018

Pitched at the foot of the South Downs, a charity is offering the chance for people in need to engage in rural life. We visited East Clayton Farm on Storrington Road, Washington, to speak to Development Manager Jean Rolfe about the unique experience it offers.

What is East Clayton Farm? East Clayton Farm is a 120-acre site close to the South Downs. It is a place where young people can engage with animals and practical farm work in a supportive environment. Our farm buildings also provide homeless or long-term unemployed adults the chance to live in a rural environment until they can find a home of their own.

How is this funded? The farm is owned by the National Trust and in 2005 the Lorica Trust was granted a 99-year lease on the land. At the time, the buildings on the land had fallen into disrepair, so during the last decade we’ve restored the farmhouse and converted the outbuildings to fulfill our objectives.

What is the Lorica Trust?
The Trust focused on homelessness along the south coast, providing overnight beds for people on the street. The charity then altered its mandate to be more proactive in preventing homelessness in the first instance, rather than dealing with the aftermath. Chairman Robin Hobson and other trustees had the vision to create a farm that enables people to be outside enjoying the fresh air whilst developing new skills and building self-esteem. Now, the sole focus of the Lorica Trust is this project at East Clayton Farm.

Are you associated with the Church? It is a Christian set-up in the way that we use the farm to help people who need help. We don't preach but we run the farm on Christian principles. At our board meeting, the trustees will pray and I personally think that makes it very special as you have five people being honest in terms of what is important to the farm. There is no hidden agenda. That approach might not work for every charity, but it works here.

How many people can you accommodate? The upstairs of the farmhouse has been converted into five flats. We work in partnership with YMCA Dowsnlink to accommodate people moving on from homelessness. There is plenty of demand, but one of our biggest challenges is moving them on from here as we find most don’t want to leave! For some people, moving into a more unsupported space is a bigger step than they realised. We have also converted the old carving shed and dairy into Bradbury Court, which has eight independent living apartments for highly dependent young adults. They have their own bathroom, bedroom, kitchen and lounge and are supported by 24-hour care. Most have mobility issues and are dependent on support. There is a huge need for more homes like it, yet there is nothing like it around. It is totally unique.

What do residents give back in return? The concept of the partnership with the YMCA is that the people who stay here need to engage with the farm. That might be mucking out in the morning, closing the animals up at night or helping run the site at the weekend. We also work with partner organisations and groups who refer young people to our training and volunteering programmes, such as our Alternative Provision Children (APC). The focus is on supporting them and engaging them as much as possible. The formula is bespoke as there is not a one size fits all solution. 

Does the rural location help  young people? It can depend on an individual’s personal challenges. Often, the isolation of the farm is a good thing because they don't have access to the sort of things that might have been causing problems in the first place. The flipside is that it’s hard to reach busier towns because of the lack of public transport here, so people are away from friends and family. So, the farm needs to give them focus and be an engagement tool. 

What do they do to keep busy? I previously spent 10 years as the CEO of a charity working with disadvantaged young children. Through learning-based engagement, we would help them get back into employment, education or training. We did that very successfully, primarily through horticulture and teaching rural skill, such as hedge laying. Here, we use animals to engage young people and the impact is 100 times greater. Sometimes, you can see an increase in their self-confidence within one day.

Why does the farm have such an impact? A key reason why this provision works is that young people don't necessarily realise that they are a beneficiary. They are here to help us run the farm and are treated as part of a team. We all sit down together for coffee, discuss what jobs need to be done and then everyone gets on with it. We don't assign people to specific roles; we work together. Therefore, they feel part of something. They aren’t just being instructed or told what to do. 

How important are the animals? They are hugely important, particularly with APC cases as often the children will build a relationship with them. Donkeys are good at recognising faces and they will bray when they see you coming. Some young people we see here are not used to having responsibility for an animal, so to be given responsibility for a donkey is a big deal and after a while they develop a rapport. The donkeys do not care where you came from or how much trouble you're in. All they want is to be fed, groomed and taken for a walk! They’re non-judgmental and that is why so many young people love to care for them. 

What other animals do you have? As well as six donkeys, we have two Anglo-Nubian goats, two pigs and a flock of bantam chickens. We also have rabbits and guinea pigs that can be very useful as an introduction to animals, as well as a few dogs on the farm. Much of the land here is also used for grazing sheep.

What positive changes can the animals bring about in a person? Donkeys can be quite naughty and challenging. Sometimes, it doesn't matter how hard you push or pull on an animal, it doesn’t want to budge and you need to consider a different approach. That can be an eye-opener. The staff will discuss such things with the young people, ask them how it made them feel and compare it with how their own behaviour makes others feel. On one occasion, a boy was walking a donkey and it bolted. The boy was scared as he couldn't stop the donkey and was worried it might run towards the road and get hurt. A teacher who was accompanying the boy compared that with how she felt when he ran away from school, as he had done several times. It was a genuine moment of clarity for the boy. I’m told he hasn’t run away from school since. Every day, I am still surprised at the impact animals can have.

Do you rely on volunteers? We have a team of about 160 volunteers and without those we wouldn't be here. Some like to help with the animals whilst others help with work around the estate such as tree planting and hedge laying. We are always looking for more people to help on that side of things. We also work in partnership with West Sussex County Council and South Downs National Park on various projects around the farm.

Who else does the farm benefit? We’ve also had dementia groups visit. One lady with dementia visited and her care worker was speechless, as she’d not engaged in meaningful conversation with the patient, but the patient loved the donkeys. She talked about the pony she had as a child and knew how to groom them. It was a special moment. We have plans to build a dementia-friendly circular path soon.

What is the next step for the farm? We recently received funding from the Henry Smith Foundation to create own learning and development centre. We hope this will allow us to offer nationally-accredited qualifications recognised by schools, colleges and employers. These will be in areas such as conservation, agriculture and animal care and will help people staying with us or visiting us on a regular basis to make the next step. We’re also hoping to work more proactively with local companies. We are well supported by businesses and some come here for social responsibility days, which is great. In future we’d like to build a stronger relationship with these to help our guests with interview techniques or possibly even work.

Is the charity’s future secure? Wherever possible, we want to generate an independent income rather than becoming a charity that is grant funding dependent. Grant funding allows us to get projects off the ground, but it isn’t a sustainable way of working. So, our donkeys effectively earn their own keep, as we offer donkey walking experiences. We’re fortunate in that we can literally walk across the road and there’s a public bridleway which leads right on to the South Downs!

If you are interested in finding out more about the farm, how to book a donkey walk or even adopt an animal, please visit the website at https://www.eastclaytonfarm.org.uk