Secret Garden sprouts back as charity evicted from Hillsborough Castle opens for business on two new sites
One year after the Secretary of State said it couldn't stay at Hillsborough Castle, a work training project for young people with learning disabilities has bounced back with two new homes in Portadown and Tandragee.
The Secret Garden charity cafe, run by the mental health charity Praxis, was open for business for nearly a decade at the Queen's Northern Ireland residence, employing seven staff and 16 trainees. But when new estate management took over the cafe was earmarked for demolition, leaving the future of the staff uncertain.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Praxis chief executive Nevin Ringland said that at the time many of the young people working there told him that "it felt as if a good friend had died, as it became such an important part of their lives".
Seamus Flood worked as a trainee in the coffee shop and gardens for nine years and has lived in a Praxis Care home for seven years. He said: "I was really sad and upset when it closed, the Secret Garden was a big part of my life. I went to it five days a week and I loved working in the garden and coffee shop. We were all devastated that such a big part of our lives was over."
Theresa Villiers faced a furious public backlash in 2014 when she said there was no chance of saving the cafe.
Public protests, petitions, political pressure and a court case all failed to reverse the decision.
Today, staff and trainees seem to have landed on their feet, opening two new sites in Co Armagh. Mr Ringland said the aim was to provide work experience and training for young people with learning disabilities.
"It's been a wonderful outcome. This is very much a long-term thing because the properties and buildings are bigger on both sites.
"There's more capacity to take on about 30 young people - about twice what we managed before."
With the Blissful Bites Bakery in Portadown and a horticultural project in Tandragee, the new set-up will provide experience of catering, gardening and key skills in ICT, literacy and numeracy. With the Tandragee site beside a busy road, there are plans for a new coffee shop.
Mr Ringland said that for the Praxis team "it was a great relief, particularly for young people with learning disabilities to bring them along with us, despite the upset that we had.
"But now with the new project it's as if they've been there their entire lives. They've also got to expand their friendship with new people joining, so they're finding it very exciting."
Mervyn Craig (33), from Belfast, was a trainee at Hillsborough Castle for nearly 10 years. He told the Belfast Telegraph being there "was the best job I ever had, I loved it".
A year after the upset of leaving Hillsborough, he was finally able to laugh, insisting: "We're staying at this place!"
Seamus added: "In the last few months I have been able to try my hands at baking, cooking, computers, even going up to the allotment to grow radishes.
"I am delighted that we have new premises and new people coming to use the centre. It means that I will make new friends and also be able to do more activities and I hope to be able to get a job".