Just before Christmas I organised a 'Winter Wildlife Wellbeing Wander' on Mousehold Heath. This was aimed at individuals who might be easily labeled by negatives; former offenders, unemployed people, alcoholics - or, in some instances, folk with combinations of the above. For me, this offered an opportunity to bring people together to do something positive and life enhancing (albeit, a bit chilly at times!). Even in snowy conditions (see photo, above) eight people turned out - which I was really pleased about.
An Adult Education tutor partnered up with one of the City Council Mousehold Heath Wardens to 'lead' our ramble through this winter wonderland. However, before I describe some of what transpired on this day, I want to focus on another individual. You see, I also invited a man (let's call him 'M'), currently living in short-stay supported housing, to come along and share with us his knowledge of living off the land. M had been bought up in care (I struggle not to put that c word in inverted commas!), and, at the age of sixteen, was relocated hundreds of miles out of his area, ending up in Yarmouth, where he was left to fend for himself. He went on to become a career criminal, eventually serving a sentence for murder. In his own words, he currently "drinks to be normal" and is an alcoholic. He has been homeless. Lots of labels there then - lots to pathologise.
However, seen in another light, here is a man who has served his time and is now attempting to listen to the 'better angels' of his nature. He loves his dog, and, spent last summer walking the coast of southern England with him as a trusted companion. When I sat down with him and listened to his 'journey' I was struck by the history in his head, and, also, that he has expertise which should be shared.
Anyway, M came along with his dog (who also had an excellent time, by the way!), and told us loads of fascinating stuff about surviving in the outdoors. I was fascinated when he smelt the presence of a fox; reminding me that a lot of us tend not to be open to learning through our range of senses. Later, when I asked him how he felt about having been our teacher, he was really enthusiastic and energised. I think that one of the reasons for this, is that the experience had given him status. That is to say, he had internalised the respect and approval which we had given him, a process which enhances ones sense of self. Whereas previously he had achieved this through violence and domination, he was able to connect in gentler ways, and feel the respect of his peers.
As we ate our picnic outdoors in the snow, we all discussed how amazing it had been to be witness to the beauty of the freshly fallen flakes. As well as the formal learning, we took time to stop and look at the world around us; to breathe in the cool fresh air. Although Mousehold Heath is surrounded by an urban area (of Norwich), we were in a green and white space, away from cars or bustle. We saw Robins and Blackbirds and animal tracks, and heard the calls of countless other creatures. I offered a supportive arm to one of the group who I had met on a couple of occasions, but who, for whatever reason, had never spoken to me. I said to him that if I fall he's going too, and vice versa and he laughed. Later, he confided a secret to me - a recognition of trust and connection that warmed me. As a group we walked for about an hour and a half in total.
I also spoke to D, who is a man in his 50s, currently unemployed, and quite isolated and lacking confidence. He told me that it was great to get out and be in the company of others; meeting new people and learning new things together.
At the end of our wintery ramble I asked for some feedback from the group, and then reflected back to them how everyone seemed to be more relaxed and fulfilled, and suggested to them that this was because we had done at least five good things together...
In conclusion, here are some of the elements that, in my opinion, made this a success:
- The experience was facilitated in a relaxed manner
- Folk were invited to contribute, and given space to stop and take notice, without undue pressure
- We were in wonderful surroundings
- All of the Five Ways were in play here, and were 'revealed' retrospectively
- We had feedback mechanisms which allowed participants to let us know how they felt about our ramble
- We brought together a diverse range of people and engaged them in an active and positive experience where their contributions are encouraged and recognised
Although wellbeing is for all, I am committed to working alongside folk who, for whatever reason, may be struggling. Recently, I was being interviewed at an awards ceremony and was asked what I do. I hadn't rehearsed a speech, and my spontaneous reply turned out to be a summary of my values and approach...
"I want to provide learning which is people-shaped. I also think that one of the most powerful things I can give is to have positive expectations of others when, perhaps, they don't - or can't - give this to themselves... yet."