How Chatsworth’s bird boxes are helping Derbyshire’s homeless to rebuild their lives

From left, Growing Lives participant Danny, with workshop manager Vitor Azevedo and participant Wayne

From left, Growing Lives participant Danny, with workshop manager Vitor Azevedo and participant Wayne - Credit: Archant

The unlikely link that is making a big difference to the lives of the vulnerable.

Growing Lives participant Wayne gives a bird table he has made for his aunt a final clean

Growing Lives participant Wayne gives a bird table he has made for his aunt a final clean - Credit: Archant

It is a journey of just 30 miles from the Chatsworth Estate to the workshop of the Growing Lives project, but the two locations are, in all other respects, worlds apart.

Chatsworth, at one end of the journey, is arguably the country’s best-loved stately home, home to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and the county’s most popular day out.

At the other end, Growing Lives is a project based in Ilkeston, where people who have experienced homelessness are invited in to start their journey to rebuild their lives by working alongside others and learning new skills, such as woodworking or cooking.

The two have very little in common, but for the past year they’ve developed an unlikely link, thanks to the Chatsworth Estate agreeing to sell items that had been hand-made in the Growing Lives workshop, namely bird boxes and trugs, to the customers visiting its Stables shop, located in the stables courtyard.

Workshop manager Vitor Azevedo and scheme participant Wayne finish off a bird box

Workshop manager Vitor Azevedo and scheme participant Wayne finish off a bird box - Credit: Archant

Growing Lives is run by the Derventio Housing Trust, a non-profit-making social landlord which works with homeless people to take them off the streets or rescue them from the endless cycle of sofa-surfing, and then give them the support and help they need to move on with their lives.

The project was granted sales space in Chatsworth’s shop after the High Sheriff of Derbyshire 2019/2020, Lord William Burlington, chose it as one of five local charities given the honour through his work with Foundation Derbyshire.

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Situated in a former narrow textiles factory – which is a perfect place to stitch back together the hopes and dreams of people whose lives have unravelled – Growing Lives works with people whose life stories include tales of sudden ill-health or life-changing injuries, alcohol and drug abuse, violent relationships, unemployment or simply bad luck, which have turned their lives upside down, leading them to lose their homes, families and jobs, along with their self-confidence and sense of self.

Helping them with that process is Vitor Azevedo, who runs Growing Lives’ woodworking workshop. Born in Portugal and growing up on a fish farm, he came to the UK to learn English and ended up staying and making a living as an artist. When he isn’t teaching everyone their woodworking skills at Growing Lives, he is currently curating art exhibitions at Déda in Derby.

Growing Lives participant Danny with workshop manager Vitor Azevedo

Growing Lives participant Danny with workshop manager Vitor Azevedo - Credit: Archant

Although a graduate in fine art, Vitor’s rural upbringing means that he can turn his hands to make anything, but, ever the artist, he insists that each participant is free to personalise the bird boxes and that, while they need to be structurally sound, they’re better if they’re not uniform.

He is as proud as anybody that the bird boxes and trugs are being sold to visitors enjoying a day out at the county’s grandest address and grateful that his hard work helps the project to boost its income.

And, acting as a metaphor for the lives the project rescues and rejuvenates from the society’s scrapheap, he is pleased that all of the materials are similarly repurposed, with the wood coming from donated pallets and scraps of timber that otherwise would have been abandoned or burned.

‘Everything is recycled, from bits and bobs of pallets or old decking and everything is given to us for free,’ he says. ‘I know a couple of people who can get pallets for us and they have been very generous.

‘What we do here is simple, but Growing Lives makes such a big difference. I’ve had people who have come in here having never cut a piece of wood in their lives but who end up making items that are of really good quality, and you can see how proud they are of themselves with what they have achieved.

‘To know that these products are on sale at Chatsworth is incredible. We sell them at other times of the year as well, but it is a real honour to see our products on sale there and to know that they have been selling well too.’

Among those who have benefitted from their time at Growing Lives is Wayne who, at the age of 51 and with a history of alcohol abuse and homelessness a fresh memory, is preparing to step out into the world of work, having got himself back on his feet.

‘I started coming here a year ago, but I didn’t like it at first because I didn’t feel comfortable in the atmosphere and didn’t like being told what to do,’ he says.

‘But I came back and over time it became my second home. I have been homeless, I’ve had issues with alcohol and a history of depression, and I’ve had to work really hard to try to put them behind me.

‘I’m very proud that our bird boxes are on sale at Chatsworth and this project has made a huge difference to my life. I’ve been given a place on a welding course now so I’m going to leave the project, which is going to be very emotional after so long.’

Derventio Housing Trust, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, operates 600 beds-worth of private accommodation in premises across Derbyshire, Midlands and the South West and runs a whole series of projects designed to help the people it works with get their lives back on track.

Growing Lives is undoubtedly one of its success stories, with its woodwork workshop just one of a series of activities taking place at its former factory, which has its own garden and arts and crafts space and also offers horticulture, creative writing, relaxation and wellbeing, as well as healthy meals, a bike club and a Men in Sheds project. All include mentoring as people learn.

Jackie Carpenter, assistant director of Derventio Housing Trust, says that Growing Lives’ successes, while hard-won, are testament to the power of giving people the opportunity and resources to rebuild their lives, and the endorsement of its products by Chatsworth has proved to be a huge fillip for everyone associated with the project.

She said: ‘You can see how proud everyone is of the work they do in the workshop, especially when they’re making products that are being sold and are not just being produced for the sake of it.

‘That is a real boost to their self-confidence, which is at the heart of everything we do because so much of what we do concerns changing the way people feel about themselves.

‘People come to us when they’re at their lowest and they’re feeling socially isolated, but because everybody’s lives matter to us, no matter what their situation or issues, people start to feel that they’re part of a supportive family.

‘That feeling of belonging, alongside the other work we do, is extremely uplifting, while anything that helps them to feel proud of themselves, like Chatsworth agreeing to sell our products, can have a hugely positive effect on people’s lives.’

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