The saying goes “Where there’s muck there’s brass” and for Sunderland Training and Education Farm (Stef) that is certainly true.
Hundreds of animals live there and hundreds of young people benefit – finding something even more valuable than money in the daily work of running the farm.
They have found something they enjoy, something they are good at.
That’s has been the aim of Jeanette Chapman since 2004, when she first had the idea to turn her father’s farm into a place that could raise local aspirations.
Jeanette said: “I want the people who come here to find something they’re good at and to excel in it. Hopefully they’ll get a career out of it and improve their lives. It can be pretty miserable around here.
“The work is going and all that’s left is sitting in an office answering phones or pressing buttons. The whole economy has changed. The young people who would have worked the same place as their dad can’t do that any more.”
Rhiannon Stubbs, 18, from Hendon, has been going to the farm for three years. After volunteering, she now works on staff three days a week and continues to help on a further two.
She said: “My friend was doing an apprenticeship here and told me about it, so I started to come on weekends. I didn’t know it was here and a lot of people still don’t.
“I used to come here seven days a week. I was desperate to come here. Now I work three days and volunteer for two.
“When I was at school I had that to do, but in the summer holidays I had nothing. Now I’m here meeting new people, which is much better than sitting at home.
“I feel good when someone spends a day volunteering with me and they come back. I’ve been mentioned in thank-you cards before, which was nice. Jeanette told me someone had said I’d been good at showing them around.”
Rhiannon is a vegetarian and animal lover.
She said: “I get really attached to the animals. I have a few favourites – the pigs and the lambs. I get attached to all the runts.
“Every morning I feed up, water, muck out the animals and show people about.
“In the afternoon I’ll clean up around the place and make sure everything has clean water and just check the animals. I’ll feed the pigs, open up the hatchery, feed the hens and brush the ponies.
“Lots of my friends ask and I tell them about it. I think my whole family’s been here.”
Jeanette was teaching at the Bridge Centre, in Washington, when her idea for the farm started:
“A lot of the work I was doing was helping women who were stuck at home all day, but often they’d say ‘Do you not do anything for men and children?’. Times changed and there needed to be something for everyone.
“I was also doing youth work at the time and took a big group of young people out to a farm. They loved it, but I was amazed how little they knew. I came back and told my dad about it and he said that’s what I should be doing. He wanted to retire, but he didn’t want to leave the farm.”
Jeanette’s dad, Richard Chapman, had his own experience of helping young people who stumbled across the farm.
Jeanette said: “Whenever he was doing some fencing or making hay and there were kids hanging around, he’d get them to help him. You’re much less likely to damage something or set it on fire if you helped to build it.
“He won an English Nature SSI Award for looking after the grasslands here in a deprived area. Now there are loads of wild grasses and flowers here.
“He won against the odds. Everywhere else was getting set on fire, but he involved the young people so we had less problems. He planted hedges all up the fields and they were left alone.”
Today, Richard is part of the management committee at Stef, as are the friends that supported Jeanette from day one.
She said: “A lot of my friends worked in community development, so I got them together and told them my ideas for the farm to see if they thought I was totally mad. Instead they said they’d love to be involved.
“I saw an advert in the paper from the Business and Innovation Centre (Bic) offering help for people with a business idea, so I wrote it all down and rang them up. They were impressed and it snowballed from there.
“The friends I’d spoken to came on board and joined the management committee and we set up the farm as somewhere young people could come that was interesting, where they could work outside, grow their confidence and we could encourage them to do some learning at college.” After opening the farm to the public, Jeanette applied for a £250,000 grant from the European Regional Development Fund to get some more buildings and tar the road up to the farm.
She said: “We spent the whole grant on materials and then worked with Springboard and Sunderland College so their construction students could come and build everything to get some good experience.”
To read the whole feature see today’s Echo.