David Walsh talks about the conservation project that helps young people with mental health challenges connect with nature and improve their skillset
Ravine NI has young people at its heart. That’s according to David Walsh, Operations Direction for The Advantage Foundation Ltd, the organisation that manages Ravine.
Ravine is a Belfast-based conservation project and social enterprise that gives young people the opportunity to gain practical work experience alongside specialists in horticulture and agriculture. The initiative is aimed at 18 to 24-year-olds who are facing mental health challenges.
“The project provides the skills and experiences most valued by industry, in a completely unique and supportive environment,” David (32) explains.
“At Ravine young people are empowered to play a more active role in society by providing them with quantifiable benefits such as a Certificate in Employability, the OCN Level 1 in Horticulture, valuable work experience, and the opportunity to be an integral part of an exciting new nature-based social enterprise that’s set in 85 acres of land in south Belfast.
“But perhaps even more importantly, Ravine has proven to increase young people’s confidence, improve health and wellbeing, and enhance their sense of purpose and motivation.”
David, who is from Portglenone, sees first-hand the impact that this project and connecting with the great outdoors can have on young people. He says one of the trainees was reluctant to leave his house before joining the programme, and now his confidence has improved to such an extent that he gets two buses and walks from the bus stop over to the site to participate in the scheme.
“The change we witness in each young person from their induction through to their completion is amazing — not only in their academic achievements but in their positive personal growth,” David says.
“One parent told us, ‘I hadn’t seen my son smile in six months and now Ravine is all he talks about’.
“Most of our young people start with us very self-conscious and introverted, but through our training and the work experience offered, we have witnessed many progress back into education, part-time employment or onto other training programmes, with more confidence and increased self-efficacy.
“A great success story from Ravine involves one of our young people who joined the project in 2019 as they found it difficult to find a programme that catered to their needs. They felt that most of the projects designed to help young people involved a lot of academic content and classwork, something that added to their mental health issues, rather than improved them.
“So when they discovered an outdoor-based training programme that provided hands-on practical experience, they couldn’t wait to join.
“While on the programme, they completed their work experience, achieved their John Muir Award and Level 1 OCN qualification in Horticulture. After completing the project they continued to volunteer with Ravine assisting in all areas and even stepped into a mentoring role for new young people joining the programme.
“As a result of their hard work, positive attitude and dedication, this young person has become the first employee at Ravine to come through the project.”
David says he finds his role as operations director for Advantage rewarding: “I have been involved with Advantage for over eight years and what I love most about my job is the fact that my work provides life-changing opportunities for young people, and because of this our organisation is recognised as a specialist in our field,” he says.
“I have been a part of designing and delivering successful projects for public and private sector organisations, both nationally and internationally.
“I have had incredible opportunities to work with students, young graduates, young business owners, and with those hardest to reach and most vulnerable in society, including prisoners, young people with mental health challenges and those furthest from the labour market. All of our efforts have one aim in common — to unleash the potential of everyone we engage with.”
Ravine delivers 24 different work experience placements and all are free of charge. Participants are granted a travel and lunch allowance. A uniform and learning materials are also provided.
Trainees gain experience in all aspects of Ravine including their working farm, polytunnels, conservation stations and nature trails.
The social enterprise welcomes referrals from young people or any health profession, agency or organisation working with young people experiencing mental health challenges.
“The programme lasts for 16 weeks minimum, with days available on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, from 10am to 3pm,” David says.
“The frequency and duration of the training, however, will be scheduled around the young person and their individual training plan will be agreed with them at induction.
“All activities that young people are involved in enhance the local area by creating facilities that promote health and wellbeing.
“These include maintenance of the Ravine market garden; creation of a wildflower meadow which will contribute significantly to the biodiversity of the area; creation and maintenance of an apiary and orchard; development and maintenance of our riverside and woodland trail; the reinstatement and conservation of habitat unique to the sites; and the development and maintenance of our interactive conservation stations.
“Our young people work with entrepreneurs, naturalists, environmentalists and horticulturists to safeguard natural habitats, showcase the wonder of our wildlife and produce a range of produce for sale commercially.”
All funds generated by the social enterprise are reinvested or used to assist the young people further develop their skills.
“Our primary beneficiaries are the young people experiencing mental health challenges who are under the age of 25,” David says.
“Our secondary beneficiaries include families of young people with mental health challenges, the health services, local residents and public users of the new facility.
“We have recently started our local veg box scheme. A large range of herbs, micro-greens and garlic are grown in the fields and polytunnels at Ravine. Members sign up for either a weekly or fortnightly seasonal vegetable box that promises to be bursting with flavour.
“Our veg boxes offer amazing value for money and each one is brimming with the freshest seasonal favourites.
“We also have seasonal one-off gifts that people can purchase from our market garden, such as strawberry baskets, lettuce baskets, tomato baskets, potted herb plants and more. Follow us on social media to keep up-to-date with what’s on offer.
“We have loads of opportunities open, to not only young people but adults and companies as well. We are always looking for volunteers to come and get involved with our work, assist in our conservation efforts, and help maintain and develop our facilities. If this is something you would like more information on then please contact us.”
David encourages families, groups, and all members of the community, young and old, to visit the social enterprise.
He says: “Ravine is home to hundreds of species of plants and animals indigenous to our woods, meadows and rivers. We encourage everyone to get up close and personal with nature by coming to visit.
“School groups, families and communities will have the chance to learn about the unique characteristics of different wildlife species, conduct their own experiments, do the Wildflower Way trail, or even put on a beekeeper suit and visit our bees.
“Our rangers are dedicated to sharing their knowledge and love of nature, and to teaching the importance of environmental stewardship to visitors.
“Educational opportunities abound, from seasonal programmes and events to customised group adventures.
“Come explore on your own or take part in one of our naturalist-led classes. It is a fun, hands-on learning experience for the whole family or class.
“And then round off your visit with a packed lunch in our dedicated picnic area.”
For more information on Ravine, see www.ravine-ni.com, RavineProject on Facebook, or theravineproject on Instagram