Sanctuary Garden

Planning for a new normality.

Paula Yassine tells us how St Marys Secret Garden has survived lockdown – and outlines a plan for carrying on as a community garden for the most vulnerable and isolated people.

Edited extracts from a much longer online conversation, recorded 15 May 2020.

The voices belong to: Anne-Marie, Katy, Paula, Rick and Ruth.

Sound quality is dreadful. That was inevitable because online meeting platforms always compress audio data as much as they can. The whooshy noises are caused mainly by laptop microphones picking up sound from the speakers. Wearing a headset usually fixes that problem — if the speakers are in your ears, the microphone won’t hear them.



It all came to a crashing halt

Most of St Mary’s Secret Garden work is face-to-face interactions with individuals and the community. And obviously with the lockdown and the risk of COVID-19, for the majority of our beneficiaries and our volunteers as well, means we haven’t been able to do face-to-face horticultural activities. So unfortunately we are closed at the moment.

Immediately we looked at ways of how we could produce some kind of service so we have started online deliveries, so you can order and that is specifically for people who are vulnerable and isolated. So if anyone can’t get out of the house, or can’t get to the nursery, they can still call us. We still got vegetables, herbs — and we can sneak in some flowers for you and we can deliver. We’re taking online payments for that — for the equipment and resources.

We are also delivering to some of our beneficiaries — some of our people with learning disabilities are in shared housing — they have got gardens — they’ve got care workers with them — so we’ve been delivering gardening packs to them — with plants so they can continue to grow.

And we are also continuing to be in conversation with all our beneficiaries and all our volunteers — mainly, for the people with learning disabilities — through the old dog and bone — through the phone, because most of them are not ICT literate — they haven’t got access to ICT — they don’t even have mobile phones,m let alone smartphones. These are a group of people we are more particularly worried about. They are already isolated and lonely — now even more so at the moment, because they are isolated and distancing.

People we used to work with in partnership — Mildmay — Tavistock — NHS Foundation Trust — with Social Action for Health — it all came to a crashing halt. We are looking at ways of opening up. We are hoping — I can’t announce it yet — because we are doing the risk assessments, and all that — hopefully an opening time next Friday. But we are doing the deliveries — so if you need a delivery and you can’t get out, drop us an email or give us a phone call.

Is there going to be a new normal?

Is there going to be a new normal? Yes, obviously there will be, Things will change. Things will get better. As to when — how long is a piece of string? The virus seems to be particularly contagious — a big threat to us human beings. But we have the benefit that the garden is mainly outside work — so when we do go back to normal, we will be outside most of the time. The portacabin that we are in is too small to get many people in, so we might have to reduce sizes. But something will happen.

The Sanctuary Garden

I’m exploring the idea — I would be interested to get your feedback on this — Sanctuary Garden. As I said, I’m isolating. I shouldn’t go outside. Earlier this week, I did pop out. I went to Hackney Downs, late one evening, with my husband. I just needed to get out. And this was before the slight lockdown was lifting — and it was horrific for someone who has been shut inside for about ten weeks. There were groups of youth playing football. More than — obviously — a family unit. Ghetto blasters there, all hanging out — people cycling, jogging, sitting on the ground — And when you know you are vulnerable to this, it was quite freaky.

So I’m wondering whether the garden has a place for — when vulnerable people are allowed to come out of lockdown — a place where we can start to get back to being outside and not being afraid to be outside. So — timed entrance, nice and quiet and peaceful — time to enjoy nature — sniff the roses — that’s what I’m exploring with the health and wellbeing network at the moment — finding some way forward on that in the weeks to come. So — slight change, but certainly a very therapeutic — and certainly a big urge towards improving mental well-being because — personally, I know that my wellbeing has been knocked, and I’m a fairly grounded person. So we are going to need help when we come out of this. We’ve got to start putting in plans for that. So it will be a different kind of normal — and I’m hoping — a more caring and supportive one. And that’s one thing that can come out of this — a positive thing – it has brought communities together.


This is Ruth — I’m interested in volunteering, and if you need any volunteers during this time. I’m interested to come round, introduce myself — and then you can see whether I’m capable of helping you out in any way. Does that suit you?

We are always accepting volunteers. Obviously, we had to stop them for a while. We’ve started to get a few in, that aren’t vulnerable, that still can help out. At the moment it’s probably quite a nice time to join us, because you can — weed all your life — you can plant things and stuff like that — because all our beneficiaries who used to do that — can’t do that. They are not allowed out.

So there is, on our website, a volunteer page — there’s a volunteer form. If you send that back to us, we will progress from there.

I’ve got volunteers that are quite able. I’ve got volunteers that are quite old. I think our oldest volunteer is Shirley and I think she’s just over 90, actually, but she’s fantastic.She’s a gardener — gardener all her life — and she;s just had two knee replacements as well And there’s nothing she doesn’t know about gardening but unfortunately she’s in lockdown with her daughter.

Twenty years I’ve known these people

As for the Mildmay clients — you did ask specifically about them — bad things happened to them before the lockdown, We can go back to the joys of austerity measures. These people were HIV-positive with cognitive impairment. Mildmay Mission Hospital Is the one centre that is specifically a charity that works with people with HIV-positive cognitive impairment.

Because of early interventions now, and better drug treatment, not many people were progressing so far with their HIV that this disorder started — so the treatment comes earlier — you don’t get the neurocognitive issues so much.

So they weren’t getting as many referrals because of the success of the treatment — which is good. But it also meant, with austerity, that the clients came from all over London — different boroughs.

Because everyone was looking at these neighbourhood models and the CCGs and the localising services, a lot of health authorities were no longer willing to pay: 1 – transport fares to get some of these quite disabled people there, and 2 – to pay for out-of-borough services.

Twenty years I’ve known these people — every week — and I’ve had such a good time in the garden with them — and I’ve got so much benefit from it. And also — the rehab and the work that Mildmay did with them on the scheme — ICT — getting them to use computers — practically went within two weeks. They were no longer going to Mildmay and therefore no longer were coming to St. Mary’s.

People I had known for twenty years — gone like that. It happened so quickly — a couple of weeks before lockdown really. Towards the end, there was only like — to say there was like 17 to 20 of them per week — and they were, by this time — they created a social network. They were their social network. They were the only people they met. They were their friends.

That was very obvious, for anyone who used to go to the garden occasionally, like me. The people doing the gardening were obviously people with quite serious difficulties in their lives And they all seemed very happy — and they all seemed not just to enjoy the gardening they seemed to be good at it as well. I thought the atmosphere there was absolutely wonderful. And now you’re saying that is not going to be part of the new normality. That is a shame.

Suddenly they disappeared, and in the end there was just one person coming in. As I said — they were each other’s friends — they were each other’s peer group — they were each other’s support network. They were completely decimated — I mean decimated — within a month, Mildmay were closing. They had run out of money. There had no one in the hospital. And that was during the start of the lockdown, and the huge rush on the NHS.

My note to self

  • Few people will listen to this as it is.
  • Curb the 1 minute outro.