Vegetable Harvest Brings Joy to Students at St Joseph’s


Horticulture is just one of many activities that take place at Caritas St Joseph’s – our Lifelong Learning Centre for adults with intellectual disabilities in Hendon. The 136 students currently attending St Joseph’s can choose from a wide range of useful, practical and creative courses including ceramics, soap making, and an internet café. 

The Centre is coming to the end of a productive, but highly unusual term. The Covid-19 Pandemic, which saw it close completely between April and September, has forced centre manager Gail Williams to make a lot of changes at the Centre to ensure the health and wellbeing of the students and staff. For example, the students are staying in their classrooms for lunch, and moving around the building a lot less. Temperatures are checked upon arrival and students wait in their classrooms at the end of the day to be collected, so they are not crowded together while they wait.

Gail says “The students have been coping very well. All of the tutors have talked to them about the new measures we have had to put in place. They all have a hand washing target of 7 hand washes per day and keep to it. They have been very good at wearing masks and keeping their distance. They so missed us in lockdown that they do not want St Joseph’s to close again. The students are very aware of their environment and wish to protect their friends. 

The 14 students on the horticulture course have been growing a range of vegetables including potatoes, tomatoes, spinach, lettuce and cucumbers as well as numerous flowers which brighten up the whole centre.

Their teacher, Sepideh Arkani said: 

“The students really enjoyed harvesting our crops, and were happy about selling them in goody bags. Most of the students in the group have verbal communication difficulties, however, their aura and interaction with the crops demonstrated their excitement about digging up little treasures of root vegetables.

“One of the students, wearing a big smile, said: ‘This is a wonderful harvest. These crops are grand.’ Another student, who has very little vocabulary, showed me a large Jerusalem artichoke that she had dug up, and said: ‘Look, look, big’ beaming. I said: ‘That is a large Jerusalem artichoke, how wonderful.’ She replied: ‘Yes, yes’, nodding cheerfully. 

“One student, who normally observes more than engages, said: ‘I love beetroot’ as the beetroots were being dug up. I asked two other non-verbal students whether they enjoyed harvesting? They said ‘yes’ with big smiles. I asked whether they liked the vegetables they had harvested? They said: ‘yes’ with big smiles. I asked them whether they were happy about selling the crops? They said: ‘Yes’ with big smiles.”

Being in the open air, gardening is a relatively safe activity. Some of the other teachers have had to be imaginative in adapting courses to make them safer. Despite not being allowed to cook together, the cookery class continues to teach nutrition, with artistic representations of the meals being made out of paper or salt dough. The students then take home a recipe to make at home.

It is vital that St Joseph’s is made as COVID-secure as possible because many students have serious underlying health conditions making them particularly vulnerable to respiratory infection. The local councils have supported St Joseph’s opening as they are confident that the centre has taken all the measures possible to mitigate the risk of transmission. They have been open now for 12 weeks and had no cases of COVID-19. 

Around 50 of the students who were registered at St Joseph’s before the pandemic have, understandably, chosen not to come back. St Joseph’s has provided resources for the students to use at home and Caritas Westminster has provided tablet computers for 8 students to help them keep in touch remotely.

The horticulture students are proud of the fruits of their labour and they have every reason to be. All the students and staff at St Joseph’s can also be proud at the way they have so successfully adapted to the challenges of our time. Gail says “St Joseph’s will always be a place of safety and growth for these students – those with intellectual disabilities are among the most marginalised in our society but here everyone is welcome as part of our community and we are so pleased that we have been able to continue this welcome despite this devastating pandemic”


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