Tuesday, 21 June 2016

From London Zoo to Brecon & District Mind - introducing Matt

Matt Sowerby (right front above) recently joined the team at Brecon & District Mind as the new Volunteer Co-ordinator. His work involves co-ordinating a number of new volunteer projects, including an environmental project working in partnership with the Brecon Beacons National Park and Brecknock Wildlife Trust.

Matt’s background is in conservation. He previously worked in South Africa and at London Zoo, and more recently as a warden at the Brecon Beacons National Park.

We caught up with Matt at his Brecon base to find out more about several exciting new developments at the mental health charity recently.

Tree identification group
Tell us more about the Eco Project you are working on

The ‘Brecon and District Mind Eco Project’ is an exciting opportunity for anyone who is interested in the natural world and how to care for their environment.

The project, in partnership with the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority, allows volunteers to take part in Environmental Conservation work which includes wildlife surveys on native species, pond clearing, invasive plant control, and bird box siting amongst many other interesting and enjoyable tasks. Members will be assisting in the management of a National Park wildlife garden and varied habitats where activities such as hedge laying and drystone walling can be done. We also offer our volunteers the opportunity to gain recognised accredited training in rural skills and conservation work.

What benefits does your conservation background bring to the project?

Having worked in conservation for over 10 years I have been able to work with a lot of amazing organisations where education and conservation were one of the main focuses. So I have seen a lot of ways to enthuse people on conservation.

Also I have worked at the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority for a year and have been able to meet a lot of different people in the organisation that was helpful in starting this project, as we wanted to work in partnership with them. I have also worked with other groups such as the BIS group ‘Biodiversity Information Service’ and the Brecknock Wildlife Trust who are also working with us on this exciting eco group.

Tree identification
Describe the garden at BBNP and the work you and the volunteers are planning

The wildlife garden is about a quarter of an acre of land set aside by the national park to create a wildlife garden at the visitor centre near Libanus. We have an impressive variety of wildlife already living there, from our ‘insect hotel’ area (this is a specially designed set of pallets and different objects for insects to nest in and take shelter), to our bird feeding stations and wild areas where brambles and long grasses are left for animals to shelter in and find food. We also have a large wildlife pond that that we’ve surveyed and found smooth newts and common frogs as well as fresh water snails and water boatmen among other things.

The eco group has already done work on improving the paths and seating area for the visiting public and designed an interpretation panel that tells visitors about the flora and fauna you can see.

We have a lot of different plans for the garden that include drystone walling, hedging and creating a foraging area for edible plants as well as creating a compost area where we can recycle all the food waste from the national park tea rooms.

Who can volunteer to join the project?

Anyone is welcome to join this project whether you have worked in conservation before or never done anything like it - it’s a good place to learn. It is ideal for people who are struggling with social isolation and just need some confidence building and would like to work with liked minded people.

Eco volunteers walk up Pen y Fan: L-R Fred, Aimee, Gregor, Joe, Stuart, Dave & Dec the dog

How does working outdoors impact on people's mental health?

Working outside has been proven to help with mental and physical health for many years. Working outside in this way can have lots of positive health benefits. For example, it can help you manage your mental and physical health, and could help prevent future periods of ill health by getting active and meeting like-minded people. It also improves fitness as well as improving the area around the participants who contribute to the work which is carried out.

‘It gives me structure, makes me utilise the daylight and get out of bed. It gives me something outside of myself to nurture and look after and that helps me to better look after myself.’ Volunteer

I hear you are developing other volunteer projects. Can you tell us about these?

This is a big question as there have been so many new projects to work on. 

Firstly, we have developed our ‘supporter’ volunteer project which is where volunteers who are interested in working in mental or social health can assist the staff in the day to day running of groups and outreaches and take on roles to assist in running courses and other events such as our complementary therapies.

We have also started the ‘Woman’s Zone’ an all-female work group where participants create art and craft work in a therapeutic environment and then run a quarterly exhibition of their work.

The ‘Men’s Shed’, which is at the development stage, is an all-male work group that will be taking part in practical projects and social activities that improve social isolation and mental health.

Our filming volunteers are being given workshops on lighting and sound, interviewing skills, and camera work as well as presenting and editing film. The group is planning on filming short documentaries on the work done here in Brecon Mind.

Westenders community ART is a programme designed in partnership with the Westenders Theatre Group from Brecon. The volunteers will be creating a large art installation of the Westenders logo and installing it at their hall in Llanfaes.

We also have volunteer ‘Ambassador’ roles to engage members of the public to promote, advocate and fundraise on behalf of Brecon and District Mind.

Eco volunteers outside the bee friendly garden in Brecon with Co-op staff who helped

What kind of support do you offer volunteers who sign up for these projects?

We can offer support to our volunteers through an induction and training programme. We also offer monthly supervision to all our volunteers so they can set themselves personal goals and targets and discuss any problems.

As well as receiving ongoing support through the entire volunteer activities, we also want to give all our volunteers the chance to control the direction of the programmes and have their say in the volunteering, so we encourage people to express their thoughts and ideas, and take control of their own volunteering when they feel able to.

Eco volunteers working outside Brecon Library to add a bee friendly planting

Tell us how your work fits in with that of other voluntary sector groups

We have a running partnership with lots of organisations such as Powys Association of Voluntary Organisations (PAVO) and the Brecon Volunteer Bureau, as well as working with the National Park volunteer programmes and Wildlife Trust. The volunteers are encouraged to work with other volunteer groups to promote networking and confidence. We also take referrals from other organisations in the third sector, such as Kaleidoscope and Gwalia Housing.

What is the most challenging aspect of working on this project?

Keeping an eye on all the projects! We now have six programmes running plus four outreach centres and twenty supporter volunteers who work in the centre, as well as another  thirty people volunteering on our specialist programmes.

Working with so many different groups and organisations takes a lot of concentration and logistics but it is fun to get it right, meet so many people and learn about their work.

Now tell us some of the rewarding aspects about working on the project

I have a lot of creative control over these projects which is a lot of fun and working with volunteers that get something out of the process is good, but also I value the chance to work on conservation and education as it's my background and what I have always wanted to be able to work in.

Eco volunteers building benches at the BBNP Mountain Centre in Libanus
L-R: Stuart, Fred, Elwyn, Joe, Aimee

What is the most valuable thing you have learnt since starting your role?

Organisation. I have always been very scatter brained but being back in a managing role has helped me focus more on planning my day.

What do you like to do in your own time when you’re not working for Brecon & District Mind? 

My wife and I run a dog boarding house, where we are licenced to keep six dogs, including our own, in our house while people are on holiday. And we have one dog of our own called Dec.

We also have a pet rat called Hugo who is a training rat that we are using to teach animal care. I am a keen artist and am currently on three local committees, including the Westenders Theatre Group Committee where I am Vice Chair. We are both performers in the local panto with Westenders every January and enjoy meeting up with the group for a few drinks and a good chat every week.

Many thanks to Matthew for telling us about the latest volunteer projects at Brecon & District Mind. 
If you would like to get involved then you can contact Matthew by emailing matthew@breconmind.org.uk or ringing 01874 611529.

The Eco Project is funded by WCVA.

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