‘Bringing our green-fingered community together has been a lifeline for many’

Money raised through The Health Lottery is helping The Aberbeeg Community Well-being Initiative change the lives of local residents 

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A single dad who has overcome several serious health battles is now helping his local community to get outdoors and improve their own mental health and well-being.

Josh Rawcliffe, 35, from Aberbeeg in Blaenau Gwent, Wales, was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 16. 

After several stints in hospital, he was on the road to recovery when, two years ago, he was dealt another devastating blow when a routine vaccination left him in Intensive Care.

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After discovering that gardening and nature helped with both his mental and physical recovery, Josh joined The Aberbeeg Community Well-being Initiative project a year later in 2022.

With the help and guidance of Tillery Action For You Ltd. (TAFY), Josh set about helping his local community develop outdoor gardens and planting areas.

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And thanks to £36,337 raised through The Health Lottery, Josh is able to do even more to help the group thrive and is using the funding to enhance a woodland area for educational and well-being sessions, as well as regular planting classes.

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He said: “The main staple for the group is the promotion and maintenance of mental health and well-being within the community. 

“We have a range of ages in the group, from children up to people in their 80s. We run activities like gardening, planting, community days and kids’ parties. 

“Last year we grew sweet peppers, chilli peppers, carrots, tomatoes, various lettuces and rocket cabbages, green beans, runner beans, sweetcorn, courgettes, potatoes - and the food goes back into the community, we make soups or people get to take their produce home.”

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And Josh can already see the positive impact the funding is having on group members. 

He explained: “There’s a young boy in his 20s who comes along. We’ve seen such an amazing turnaround for him. He’s high-functioning autistic and as soon as he left school, all that structure was just pulled from underneath him, so he spent a couple years just lost, not knowing what to do.

“He came to the men’s group and something just clicked. He comes every week and we’ve seen such a change in him. It’s just been amazing to watch.”

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Josh, who is also a ward councillor for Aberbeeg, is an advocate for gardening and being close to nature and believes it’s a good way to reduce anxiety and depression, as well as build confidence and self-esteem. 

It’s a tool which helped him overcome his own periods of poor mental health, and he is now flourishing in his new role as a community leader.

He said: “I’ve worked with community-based charities for just over 20 years now. I’m a single dad and I’ve got schizophrenia and depression. I was diagnosed at 16 when I was just about to do my A-levels. I spent a few months in hospitals undergoing treatment and my last hospital visit was 2007. Since then I’ve been on medication and I’m now 35, so it’s been half my lifetime working out what works for me and what doesn’t.”

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In December 2021, feeling well on his medication and reaping the healing benefits of the great outdoors, Josh looked for a job opportunity.

However, he was faced with another huge obstacle.

He explained: “I wanted to bring myself back up, get my confidence back, and I was offered what would have been one of my dream jobs in funeral care. One of the conditions was being vaccinated, so I had my booster. 

“Fourteen days later I was in ICU struggling to breathe and having chest pains. I needed a walking stick for the 18 months that followed. It just completely, completely threw me and I now have nerve damage. I’m still undergoing diagnosis for it to try and see what the best treatment for it is. 

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“I feel better within myself now. I feel like I’m able to help the community group that gave me the help and support that I needed when I had the rug pulled out from underneath me. They gave me confidence and now I’m able to see the progress and the differences it is making in other people’s lives.”

Aberbeeg is one of many communities in the UK which is still reeling from the long-term effects of the pandemic and multiple lockdowns. 

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Many residents are suffering from social isolation, which can lead to poor mental health. The closure of local facilities, such as the community centre, has only negatively impacted the residents further. 

Josh says the funding raised through The Health Lottery has been a lifeline for the people of Aberbeeg and beyond, and he can’t imagine what life would be like for them without the initiative.

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He said: “A lot of people were stuck inside their homes for lockdown, but some didn’t come out for two years. There were some ladies in our group who only came out once a week if they were feeling mentally strong enough. 

“We had a couple of younger ladies, in their early 20s, who were absolutely terrified when the pandemic happened, one hadn’t left the house for three years. She is on the [autistic] spectrum and had some other difficulties, and she found it quite overwhelming, having panic attacks. 

“She was like a preyed [upon] animal and very afraid of the world outside. But then she started to settle here, and after a little while she brought a friend along because she wanted to show them the difference [the group] had made to her.

“We are teaching people how to socialise again, build their confidence, and we all learn to balance each other out. We are teaching people social skills to go out into the world again.”

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He added: “Without the funding and this group, I think some of them would no longer be with us. It’s quite shocking. 

“Community centres like this are little, but they provide such a lifeline. We are one of the poorest places in Britain, we’re right up there, and there are people who don’t go out. We are a safe place where they can come, talk to someone, have a hot drink and not be alone.”

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TAFY project leader Neil Hirst - a former accountant who has also worked at the Prince’s Trust - says the group’s success is mainly down to Josh’s commitment. 

He said: “I’d say pretty much everything down there wouldn’t have happened without Josh’s input. There are some key members of the group who work hard and are heavily involved, but Josh is a community connector. He makes things happen.”

Speaking of the funding raised through The Health Lottery for the Initiative, Neil added: “It’s absolutely massive for us. We’ve been able to extend the hours of some of our staff, like Mandy, our horticulturist, and we can plan trips to broaden people’s horizons in terms of doing different things. It’s also been absolutely fantastic for us because it gives us that security to carry on doing this. It’s given us a lot more stability going forward.”

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https://www.aberbeegcommunitycentre.co.uk/                    https://www.tafy.co.uk/

The current society benefitting from funds raised is EWA Health CIC T/A HL Wales

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