Housed under the larger Our Bright Future umbrella (which brings together the youth and environmental sectors), the Green Academies Project (GAP) was initially piloted in Birmingham in 2009 and enjoyed huge success. Since then, four further National Trust properties in England and Wales have got involved with the project, including Gibside.
GAP Gibside works with young people across Newcastle, Gateshead, Sunderland and Durham to help them develop new skills, grow confidence, and improve the green spaces where they live. Involving schools, colleges, and community groups, GAP allows young people to understand the challenges faced by today’s environment, recognise the crucial role nature plays in our lives, and play a part in its conservation.
The programme is open to all young people between 11–24 years old, from all backgrounds and abilities, and offers the opportunity to develop a wide range of skills from woodworking and planting to conservation and woodland management. ‘When they first start you can see they lack confidence,’ says David Carver, Local Partnerships Coordinator for GAP. ‘But over the weeks and months as they get more involved, you can see their confidence and knowledge building. We get feedback from some of them saying that they didn’t know they were interested in gardening or conservation, but actually it turns out that they are.’
GAP runs various projects across the North East, establishing partnerships between local schools and colleges, such as Derwentside, and volunteer-led groups for green spaces to help young people develop new skills and improve these areas in the process. Projects include tidying up the Leadgate coast-to-coast cycle route, cleaning up a neglected pedestrian walkway near The Gate in Newcastle, and creating a mini wildlife garden complete with bug hotel at Gibside, Gateshead. They now have around 50 young people currently involved in various projects in the region.
David and the team are constantly working within the local community to establish new links with organisations to open up new opportunities for the young people involved. ‘We recently started a project with Newcastle West End Food Bank, who’d heard about GAP and were interested in working with us,’ says David.
‘They had a bit of spare ground outside the food bank and wanted to create a garden out there, so we’ve been working to create a kitchen garden. Everyone involved has been learning new horticultural skills such as planting, looking after soil, and controlling pests without any chemicals or pesticides.’
The children’s charity Smile for Life have also recently reaped the benefits of GAP’s volunteers, as they helped install a small wildlife garden at their new Café Beam: a café which will allow youngsters with learning difficulties and disabilities to build confidence in a workplace environment. GAP’s ‘Green Team’ turned the derelict yard into a pleasant green space for visitors to enjoy. The team cleared away debris, painted the decking, constructed a garden shed, and planted a variety of flowers – all of which offered the volunteers plenty of learning experiences, social opportunities and a well-earned sense of pride and achievement.
As well as practical gardening skills, the GAP members learn about wildlife conservation too. ‘At Belmont Scrambles, a wildlife area near Durham, we’ve been working with the Friends of Belmont Scrambles group on a project to encourage more butterflies,’ explains David. ‘We’ve been planting buckthorn in the area to try and increase brimstone butterfly numbers, so the volunteers have been learning how to create a specific habitat to attract a specific creature.’
Belmont has also been the site of a new night garden, identifying certain plants that attract moths which in turn would help increase the bat population. The volunteers developed woodworking skills as they crafted bat boxes. Other skills GAP encourages include invasive species control, species identification, orienteering and even bushcraft and outdoor team-building activities to mix things up.
‘For many of them, this is the first time they’ve tried their hand at practical tasks and outdoor activities,’ says David. ‘Some of them have never even used a compass before. We want to open their eyes to the world around them, because a lot of them are always looking at their phones or computer screens – GAP is a great escape from that.’
To find out more about GAP and the work they do, visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/gibside