After days of miserable rain, the spring sun is actually shining when I visit the Offham-based charity Spadework, just outside West Malling. I get the feeling, though, that whatever the weather, I’d have found the team here smiling - and with plenty to smile about. For a start, 2024 marks 40 years since a group of West Kent parents wanted to find meaningful activities for their learning-disabled adult children. From a handful of young people and a few staff, the charity established in 1984 has grown to support around 112 trainees today – adults with a variety of needs from all over Kent – and 62 staff (of which 9 are full-time) from a wide range of backgrounds. Together they’re busy cultivating five acres of land (the soil’s being prepared for onions when I visit) and making everything from heat-retaining blankets out of crisp packets for the homeless in their craft rooms to benches, chests of drawers and bug houses in their woodwork studio. Outside organisations such as Square Pegs Arts come in to help with drama projects and the trainees host their own podcast, Spadio – great for building communication skills.

Also on site, beyond the trainees’ work, an airy café welcomes the paying public, there’s a garden centre headed up by an experienced horticulturalist, an enticing gift shop and a farm shop stocked with local provisions, from Spadework apple juice to jams and pies, to firewood. ‘As a social enterprise, any profits made are ploughed back into the charity, providing an essential supplement to limited statutory funding,’ explains Head of Communications, Bridget Marrison. ‘Our trainees’ work is utilised in our retail side as much as possible – they painted the colourful chairs in the café, for instance, while anything that’s grown here might be used on the café’s menu, and you might find the herbs and plants we grow for sale within the garden centre.’

Great British Life: Spadework: Kent Charity of the Year 2023. Spadework: Kent Charity of the Year 2023. (Image: Spadework)

The charity’s dynamic approach has seen it win numerous awards over the years, culminating in being named Charity of the Year in last year’s Kent Charity Awards. But perhaps the main reason people smile here– staff and trainees alike – is because of ‘the real sense of joy’, as a staff-member puts it, that Spadework’s creative, purposeful atmosphere engenders.

Kris Healey has been Spadework’s CEO here for seven years – an ideal role for a local boy who’s been visiting since his childhood, seeing for himself the benefits it brought to his own great uncle Roger, and to his wider family. Little surprise, then, that’s he’s so passionate about what Spadework has to offer ‘We’re about listening first, finding out what it is our trainees want to do when they come to us, and tailoring what we offer to suit them,’ he enthuses. The term ‘trainee’ is, Kris agrees, a little confusing in that it implies an end goal, a completion. In fact, one of the longest-attending trainees, Tim*, has been coming to Spadework for 35 years – ‘It’s all the different activities here that make me enjoy coming,’ he says. ‘My favourite is the pumpkins’ – Spadework grew and sold over 16,000 of them at Halloween last year, with its pumpkin festival one of its largest fundraisers.

Great British Life: The growing and nurturing of plants is an ongoing activity at the charity. The growing and nurturing of plants is an ongoing activity at the charity. (Image: Spadework)

People’s long-term commitment to the charity seems to be something of a theme: another staff member has been on the team for 23 years, while Spadework’s Patron, George Harvey, began as a volunteer back in 1987 and has worked here over the years in almost every role going. Because the ethos here centres on continuous learning and new experiences for everyone, any traineeship is seen as potentially ongoing, too. ‘Trainees are either self-referred, or their family get in touch with us, or they’re referred by Kent County Council, who provide some funding – trainees don’t have to pay themselves,’ explains Kris. ‘We look at everyone individually and ask, ‘what does “good” look like for that person?’ Then we work towards helping him or her achieve it.’

The average length of traineeship is around nine years, with trainees arriving at 9.30am and leaving at 2.30pm, and they can come daily if they wish. Staff meet twice weekly to discuss trainees and how they’re doing, highlight any issues and to share successes. A council of eight trainees ensures that there’s an official forum for discussing ideas – the trainees wanted their own celebratory anniversary party, for instance, and they’re now busy planning Spadefest for later this summer. But staff are always on hand to chat, and the easy, inclusive interaction between everyone is obvious – one trainee gives a brilliant run-down of the latest book she’s been reading to Bridget Marrison, while another – knowing Bridget’s previous life in publishing – has shared some of his creative writing with her. ‘I think it helps that staff come from a variety of different backgrounds – we’ve got a former head teacher and a retired accountant working with trainees on a range of activities. Everyone brings their own skills and experiences into the mix,’ says Bridget.

Great British Life: Just some of the garden centre's plantsJust some of the garden centre's plants (Image: Marcus Curry Photography)

Activities operate on an eight-week basis, and the range of options and staff to teach them means that trainees are always able to learn things from a new angle. ‘And the trainees teach me,’ says staff-member Lorna, who’s currently works with four trainees in Spadework’s life-skills kitchen. ‘I’d had an air-fryer sitting at home for ages – they persuaded me to bring it in so we could start using it.’ Trainee Marcia says, ‘There’s no time for sitting on our bums – we’re really busy, and I like that. My favourite thing to make is pizza with sweetcorn and tomato, and we’re making biscuits to take home too.’

Seeing trainees grow in confidence and enthusiasm is especially satisfying, says Lorna. ‘We had one trainee who was initially very reluctant to take part in anything to do with food prep – and wouldn’t sample anything we’d cooked together, either. Obviously we weren’t going to force him, but we had him doing some sweeping up quite happily, so then I suggested he might just like to try something in-between sweeping. By the end of the eight weeks, he was helping to make a fantastic splat cake with the rest of the team – and eating it with custard. Seeing him come out of himself and joining in was wonderful.’

Great British Life: The pumpkin event is popular with trainees, staff and visitors alike - and is one of Spadework's biggest fundraisers The pumpkin event is popular with trainees, staff and visitors alike - and is one of Spadework's biggest fundraisers (Image: Spadework)
‘A sense of team work, self-confidence and achievement are the sort of skills we aim to build in our trainees’ says Kris,‘and we keep our eyes open for other groups that might needs support, too – we’ve recently launched a group for carers, and we run regular dementia support and wellbeing sessions. We have plenty of space – much of which was added during lockdown – so we feel we’ve got a moral obligation to make the most of it and to support those who might otherwise feel isolated.’

With sharing a key tenet of the Spadework ethos, the team are looking to share their celebrations in their Ruby Anniversary Year, not only among themselves but with the wider community too. Meanwhile, if you’re looking to stock up a plants for the garden or Kentish provisions, to find a gift, or just want to enjoy good coffee and cake in an energising atmosphere, head for Spadework. Chances are, you’ll find what you’re looking for - the sense of joy comes free.

*trainees' names have been changed to protect their privacy

Great British Life: The rustic-style cafe is popular with visitorsThe rustic-style cafe is popular with visitors (Image: Spadework)

Spadework events to look forward to:

June 8 2024 Summer Fair and Big Spadework Tea Party open to everyone

Tea and tours Monday June 10 to Friday June 15, open to everyone, booking required

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