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This December, students at Caritas St Joseph’s have proudly sold the vegetables harvested from the centre’s own allotment. 
Horticulture is just one of many activities that take place at Caritas St Joseph’s in Hendon, a lifelong learning centre for adults with intellectual disabilities. 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 the centre close completely between April and September, has led centre manager Gail Williams to make a lot of changes to protect the health and wellbeing of students and staff. These changes include students staying in their classrooms for lunch and moving around the building 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.

Speaking about how the students have responded to the changes, Gail said: ‘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 a variety of flowers to brighten up the centre.

The horticulture course 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 and they said “yes” with big smiles.’

Gardening is a relatively safe activity due to the fact that it takes place out in the open air. 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. The centre has been open for 12 weeks and has had no cases of COVID-19.

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

Commenting on the role that St Joseph’s plays for its students, Gail said: ‘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.’

Images show a display of root vegetables, students harvesting runner beans and a flier advertising the sale of vegetables to the community of St Joseph’s and Caritas Westminster.