Oaktree Farm Care: A Rural Education
Published 3 March 2015
Oaktree Farm would not initially appear to be an ideal location for young adults with learning difficulties.
There's not a lot there - just a barn, which until a few years ago stored farming equipment, surrounded by 33 acres of fields along the Downs Link in Copsale.
Yet the young people who attend Oaktree Farm Care are all smiling as they sit together for their lunch break.
Some have spent the morning hedge laying, creating a path alongside a river which they occasionally fish. Others have been horse riding, whilst a few have been downstairs in the woodwork area making bird boxes.
After a lunch hour during which some caught up on emails on one of the centre's six computers, they head off outside again, with a few opting to join a new photography group.
It is this focus on outdoor activities that appeals to the people (most of whom have an autistic spectrum
disorder) that visit Oaktree Farm Care each week.
Every day, the farm offers three sessions with at least three activity options in each. They are all displayed with words and pictures on a wall in the common room. They cover everything from horticulture right through to Oaktree's 'Let's Get 2 Work Scheme' projects.
Director Amanda Churcher said: "The structure is simple. They start at 9.30am, have a break at 11am. Then 15 minutes later they are back to work until lunch time, and then it's a similar routine in the afternoon.
"That's what life is like for most people who work, so we implement that same routine and ensure that every person here achieves something as well as enjoying their day.
"They don't see any of us staff as teachers. They've all been through school and college and they don't want teachers anymore; they want people who treat them normally. All we want to hear is them laughing and enjoying themselves and to know that when we send them home they've got a lot out of the day."
The lure of the Countryside
Oaktree Farm Care was founded in 2012 by Amanda, who has a 27-year-old autistic son, Steven, and Dave Curran, who has vast experience in looking after people with learning difficulties.
It was Amanda's desire to provide the right care for her son that led to Oaktree – a social enterprise - being formed.
Amanda said: "I came here from Portsmouth with Steven, and lived just up the road, and found I was continuously contacting the authorities trying to find the right help.
"After we met with a social worker, Steven was put on a work programme for a while until they realised what I had already told them – his strong autism traits meant he could not do it. Then they sent him to the Strawford Centre in Horsham, but it was not the right environment for him.
"He was just going in circles. Then he was put on a course which meant travelling to Chichester College every day on the train, which is difficult for somebody with autism. One day it was busy so Steven thought he would take himself into an empty compartment, and didn't realise it was a first class section. He sat there quietly and showed the train inspector his pass, but he couldn't understand why he had to move so he sat there.
"When he got off the train, there were six officers from the transport police waiting for him, and they pinned him down on the station platform."
Steven then tried The Butterfly Project, a day service based in a shop in Horsham town centre. It wasn't right for Steven, but its focus on work in the community appealed. Then one day, Steven's support worker, Dave
Curran, said to Amanda 'I'd love to win the lottery so that I could buy a farm.'
Dave recalls: "Amanda asked me what I would you do with a farm, and I told her that I would run a centre for people with learning difficulties without the hustle and bustle of town. It would just be them working at their own speed out in the country air."
From Small Acorns...
As it transpired, Amanda's husband, Andrew, owned land in Copsale, which he used to store his farming equipment. The couple discussed the idea of using the land to create a care centre for Steven and others with learning difficulties, if they could attract them.
People with learning difficulties are assessed by local authority services, and depending on their needs are given a grant to help them with their care and learning needs. But being a new operation without established links in the community, Oaktree Farm started out with just Steven and one other young adult.
Initially, there was even some objection to the scheme from local people, who expressed a view that is hard to
sympathise with - that a rural setting is not an ideal location for people with learning disabilities.
But slowly the centre has grown in popularity and now employs 15 support staff. Dave joined the enterprise from the outset as senior manager, and two years on others have joined. Andrew's son Laurence also works full-time at Oaktree, whilst his sister Claudia has a part-time role.
Dave said: "We've had to go out and get every single customer ourselves, mainly at schools such as QEII School in Horsham and Manor Green in Crawley.
"We set our stall out and tell them what we are and what we do. In all honestly, it isn't for everybody. Lots of people like being in the town centre and there are other places they can go to. But there are a group of people that like the countryside. They like peace and quiet and the idea of being able to leave a room if it's too crowded and go outside for a walk.
"We wanted to create a rural environment that teaches social skills. The people that come here need to know how to handle payments in a shop and things like that. If they are handing over £10 for something that costs £4.99, they need to know they are owed £5.01 in change.
"Many of them are going into their 20s so there is probably going to be a time when their parents can't look after them and they will require supported living. It is then that they are going to need certain skills and that is what we try to teach them. They love it here. You can see that they are happy."
From Chickens to Shaun the Sheep
There may be peace and tranquility at Oaktree Farm, but everyone keeps busy. Gavin Pusey leads the carpentry group, and many of the items the young adults make are sold. They also grow plants and vegetables in a poly tunnel, with the help of a former winner at Chelsea Flower Show.
Many of those being cared for also have an affinity to animals, so there are chickens on the farm, and weekly sessions at a local riding stables. Other activities involve arts and crafts, and occasionally they go on outings. Recently, Dave took a group to the cinema to watch Shaun the Sheep, and there have been camping excursions too. Once a month, a small group also sets off to deliver AAH around the villages of Copsale and Maplehurst.
Amanda said: "All of the support workers have different skills and that is what we want as we're teaching different skills, like how to grow and cook vegetables. If it wasn't for places like this, people like Steven would sit at home doing nothing. There is help during educational years, but when they become young adults, people can be lost by the system and forgotten about.
"We offer something different for them, as there is nothing else like this around Horsham. Oaktree gives them an idea of what outdoor life is like and also gives them independence. They appreciate the freedom of being able to leave the building and find their own space, as long as they have member of staff with them.
"One lad gets quite frustrated from time to time and goes to a swing near the river, as he finds it very therapeutic. It just brings his stress levels back down."
Having been in operation for three years, 2015 could be a big year for Oaktree Farm. They hope to be part of the county council's framework for people with learning difficulties, which should mean more people in the area are aware of the services on offer at Oaktree.
On the farm, there are plans for camping weekends, whilst Andrew and his team will also be finishing an extension to the mezzanine level of the barn.
Amanda said: "The extension we are working on will give us a lot more space. At the moment, it can get a little too noisy so we'd like some space where people can find a quiet space. We also want a bigger kitchen and more office space.
"Dave has worked tirelessly to put our name out there and it is been really hard - and to be honest it still is - to get our name out there, so if we are part of the county council's framework it could really help us grow. We've all worked tremendously hard to build this into something that we didn't ever think it could be.
"When I first spoke to Dave about the idea, both he and our senior support worker Lucy Speed were both in full time work. Yet they came here because it was their dream too.Now we are a very strong team.
"Dave and I talk all of the time. I don't make a decision without him and he doesn't make a decision without me."
Dave though, is happy to leave the money side of the business to Amanda. He said: "I'm not interested in what anyone pays to come here. I just want to give everyone the same care, whether they pay £1 or £100.
"That's the point of Oaktree – we are passionate and we care about everyone."
For information call 01403 732230 or visit http://oaktreefarmcare.yolasite.com