The Big Interview: Susan Stuart

I’d always had an ambition to put my skills towards something that did some good rather than just giving me a comfortable lifestyle,” says Susan Stuart, who, for the past 18 months has been manager of Thrive’s flagship garden project based at Battersea Park, south west London. Thrive is a national charity, founded in 1978, that uses gardening to change the lives of disabled people.

Despite a career as an accountant and investment banker, Stuart had become dissatisfied with her lot and spent five years considering a fundamental lifestyle change. “In the City, existence was very much focused on individual success, and it was difficult to have a team-working environment, which is what I enjoy. It became an unsatisfying environment to work in.”

Searching for an alternative, Stuart looked to her long-term love of gardening, which she had found to be a consistent method of reducing stress. Even at that stage she was thinking how she could combine this with other interests. “I’d been chair of governors for a special needs secondary school in Lambeth, and had been a trustee of Nasen (formerly the National Association for Special Educational Needs).

“I could see that gardening had opportunities for young adults with complex needs – a way of engaging them in the community, whether it was as volunteers or potentially as economically active individuals.”

Need for renovation

Interview p30 21 FebA regular visitor to Battersea Park, Stuart noticed a need for renovation work in one of the gardens and became involved with a committee planning a project involving young people with special educational needs in horticultural training. Then the opportunity to take a redundancy package from her City job coincided with the offer of a job as stand-in garden manager at Battersea Park.

“It was initially for five months, but when I came to the end of the contract I realised that if Thrive offered me a permanent job it would be exactly what I wanted to do.”

Stuart’s commercial background stands her in good stead. “These days it’s such a competitive area – you really need to look at a charity as a business in its own right. The only real difference between a charity and a commercial business is that you have two aims instead of one. Your main aim is to create social benefit, but like any other business you have to be financially sustainable.”

Most of her working week is spent dealing with business planning, looking at the needs of the community and assessing how Thrive might meet those needs for disabled people. The remainder is hands-on.

“I try to spend at least a day a week at the project so I can talk to gardeners to find out how they’re benefiting from Thrive.”

Stuart’s small team of horticultural therapists works alongside disabled people and develops personal development programmes. The range of needs is diverse.

“It could be as simple as somebody who has arthritis but wants help and advice on how to keep their garden,” says Stuart. Many of the gardeners on the project, however, have more complex needs.

Confidence boost

“A lot of people with mental health problems become used to failure and social isolation,” Stuart says. “In their first few months at the project we might get them to grow a bed of potatoes. It’s easy to do, but it might be the first time for 10 years that they’ve succeeded in something. It’s an enormous boost to their confidence.”

Stuart is waiting to confirm London Development Agency funding for the latest project at Battersea. “Working It Out”, scheduled to begin in a couple of months, will combine gardening as therapy with an emphasis on matching disabled people with job vacancies in London’s parks.

“There are a huge number of disabled people who are unable to access formal training or the employment market because they have support needs,” says Stuart. “On the other hand, London’s parks have real problems recruiting. There are people who can acquire those skills, but need support.”

The scheme, which will be based at Battersea and one other London site, will combine up to two years’ therapy and training with a formal two-week work placement programme in partnership with the park contractors. Based on feedback from the work placement, Thrive will then work with disabled employment charity the Shaw Trust in helping with job applications.

Stuart, who once used horticulture as a release from the pressures of her day job, still views gardening as pleasure. “What I’ve started on will be a thread for the rest of my working days.”

For more information  call 0118 988 5688

This article appeared in the 21 February issue under the headline “Seeds of independence”

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