On a hot Summer’s day in my hometown, I visited a place that I didn’t know was hiding behind the hedgerow. Walking through the gates of Sailship reminded me that there are pockets of hope to be found when you least expect it. In fact, I was expecting Sailship to be a simple allotment field like it was when Liz Barritt first came across the land, but since then she has grown the project with love and imagination. Sailship in Clacton On Sea, Essex, United Kingdom champions work & life skills training for people living with learning disabilities and mental health support needs.
When such tremendous kind life missions arrive, there’s usually a catalyst. For Liz, it’s her brother who suffered a devastating motorcycle accident in the 1980s that caused a serious head injury and blindness in his right eye. He came home to their family in an awful condition with little aftercare available. She told me, “He’s 66 now, and he lives independently. That’s as a result of, I have to say it without bigging myself up, my help and support which led me to a career working with those with special educational needs.” Liz has an intentional drive to demonstrate the social care that she saw was missing, in an act of kindness and hope for the future of care.
The whole setup reminds me of the Big Issue’s slogan: ‘A Hand Up Not A Hand Out’. Sailship is a vocational learning experience that teaches skills with all facets of the production line covered, from making products, quality control, packaging, marketing, to the social skills of serving and catering for customer needs. When I visited, the trainees were hard at work in the kitchen and told me all about the delicious recipes they’d learnt here. On the shelves were jars of jam, honey, and even dog food, ready to sell to the public alongside hanging baskets, bird boxes, and decorations.
It’s an experience that I feel contains the secrets of life that are missed out of mainstream education. Sailship is an ASDAN registered centre, a curriculum development and awarding organisation, providing flexible and engaging programmes and qualifications that help young people develop skills for learning, work, and life. As well as working with Thrive to offer social and therapeutic horticulture to really take advantage of the allotment space to improve physical health, mental health, thinking and communication skills.
The project really started by the gates of a field that ran alongside a main road, and expanded out over time with polytunnels and old caravans filled with energy and vision from Liz, staff, and volunteers. Liz described to me the incredible synchronicity that helped to build Sailship, small acts of kindness and coincidences with big results. Phoenix, the polytunnel for wet weather activities, burned to the ground in 2018, but rose from the ashes when the insurance company covered a new polytunnel and the builder also decided to salvage the old metal frame to form two additional polytunnels. Caravans seemed like the perfect way of creating a simulation of independent living in addition to providing indoor classrooms and facilities, this proved to be another force of kindness when the seller gave them a special deal to support Sailship’s work. The acts of kindness from the community, volunteers, workers, sellers, and charities have helped create a visionary project that supports trainees to develop skills that will enrich their lives and teach them the power of kindness to pay forward.
As with most things during 2020, Sailship was hit by the pandemic, but this didn’t stop Liz and the team from reaching the trainees. In fact, they took advantage of support grants to upscale the activity packages being sent to the trainees and deliver them to local care homes to stimulate the residents and carers. The kindness injected into Sailship is very much given back and, after engaging with the town’s care homes during the pandemic, there are plans to engage the 54 local care homes in a planned exercise circuit around the site.
As well as older people, the project wants to include schools and scout groups to make use of the reading garden, yoga & meditation area, the pond for pond dipping, the wild area for conservation education, poly tunnels for all-weather activities, crops & gardens, bee hives, bug hotels, the woodwork hut. Where other people would see a pile of old wood and overgrown bushes, Liz saw a space to facilitate outdoor therapy sessions in sheltered garden areas. Out of a family tragedy, Liz saw hope for others.
Sailship stands as an example that if you have a vision to share kindness with others, others will share kindness with you in order to help you reach that vision.