Tom is in his element when he is in a garden. He has spent many years helping his Dad in their garden, and in the past year has mastered cutting grass with a gas-powered mower and strimmer as part of his day service placement with the local Council.
Tom is 26 and has autism. He came to tsiMORAY 8 months ago with an employment mentor, looking to see if there were other gardens where could he volunteer to cut grass. There wasn’t a specific opportunity available, but his passion to work outdoors and use his newly qualified garden machinery skills was obvious and undeniable.
After listening more closely to what Tom wanted to achieve, it was apparent that he wanted to volunteer to help out others, but also to improve his future employability prospects and to meet new people. Thinking ‘outside the box’, was the first step for Tom, as routine and predictability provide a sense of well-being in his daily life. We asked him if he would consider volunteering in a place where grass cutting may not be the primary task; Tom said he could learn to do other work, although he would still like to do some grass cutting. Talking about a change was the first step in finding Tom a volunteer role that he could thrive in.
A couple of options were discussed, including the garden at Newbold House, a local charity and retreat centre in Forres, which maintains a large organic garden. The garden provides a significant food source for the House and its team of staff, residents and resident volunteers. There was not a specific opportunity for a grass-cutter or gardener, but the Newbold had worked with tsiMORAY in the past to find seasonal fruit harvesting volunteers, and would potentially have something suitable for Tom.
tsiMoray managed to organise a volunteering role for Tom by meeting with Newbold House’s Volunteer Coordinator. After discussing the garden, the kinds of work that needed doing and what Tom could help with, as well as his needs and goals, it was agreed that a visit would be the best way forward.
Tom’s Employment Mentor, Scott, was crucial in preparing Tom for his volunteering and accompanied Tom on his first visit to Newbold House, along with Sue, tsiMoray’s Volunteering Development Officer. Everyone was greeted with the warmest of welcomes; Tom was able to meet the core staff at Newbold and enjoy a tour of the garden with the head gardener. After the tour, as with every Monday gardening session, the entire team was invited for lunch together with food prepared from the garden.
Tom’s first impression was extremely positive. He said that he would like to volunteer at Newbold House instead of attending his day service. A day of sample volunteering was arranged where Tom’s mentor volunteered along-side him. This was also a positive experience as Tom learned about the various tasks he could do in the garden.
Allowing Tom to venture into the unknown was also a big step for Tom’s parents, who had never heard of Newbold House. tsiMoray arranged another day for everyone to meet at the garden, including Tom’s parents, where they could find out about Tom’s role; everyone thought it was a great fit.
There was another big ask of Tom – if he wanted to pursue volunteering, he would have to change his weekly routine as Mondays were the day for gardening. Tom was prepared for this and much to everyone’s surprise, Tom agreed and changed his weekly routine to volunteer. For the next four weeks, Tom and his mentor volunteered together to achieve the best possible start. This support was key; they provided regular weekly updates to tsiMoray, who checked with Newbold to see how things were progressing… all was going well!
“I am part of a real team”
tsiMoray hosted a six month review where everyone involved in the process, from Tom’s Employment Mentor and Volunteer Manager, his social worker and parents, to tsiMoray’s Volunteering Officer and manager, and Newbold House’s Volunteer Coordinator, came to discuss Tom’s volunteering. All acknowledged the profound change it has had on his life. Tom’s gardening skill and knowledge has grown tremendously; he is planting seeds, pruning, growing vegetables, planting bulbs, composting and harvesting. He also has lunch every week with the garden team and says he is now eating differently and is enjoying trying new foods; eating lunch with everyone, he says, is the best part of his volunteering.
The development of Tom’s social skills has been significant: “You cannot hand walk someone through social skills”, said Tom’s Dad at the review, acknowledging that this change in Tom and his confidence has been noticeable and real. Tom is also independently travelling to his volunteering and gaining confidence using this skill; he takes a 25 minute bus ride and walks 20 minutes to get to Newbold House. Tom has decided to not go to his day service on a Monday, but instead has committed to his volunteering.
Newbold House have also benefited: “Seeing Tom in the garden is beautiful thing for all of us”, says Newbold’s Volunteer Coordinator, “We learn from Tom”.