Young people with Down syndrome are learning to grow and cook their own food, thanks to almost £600,000 raised by National Lottery players.

The four year Grow Cook Cater programme is run by L’Arche from their allotment in south Belfast, and is helping young people with learning disabilities feel more confident and develop their skills for independent living, volunteering, and employment. Activities include growing fruit and vegetables, cooking, taking part in social activities, and completing work placements.

Back in 2016, L’Arche received £573,164 from the Big Lottery Fund to run this project. We chatted to Conor Boyle, now 24, about how L’Arche has improved his life. Conor, who has Down syndrome, has been taking part in activities at L’Arche since 2013.

Conor said: “I love being outside in the fresh air, it doesn’t matter what the weather is like. I like weeding, construction work, digging and seeding. I’m really strong so I’m good at using the wheelbarrow and building things. I help build the allotment beds and then plant seeds in them to grow food.

“I’m not great at cooking yet but I’d like to learn how to cook the food I grow. I have a vegetable patch at home which I look after — I grow potatoes and carrots.

“I feel really good when I’m out working at the allotments, I’m proud of the work I do there. Sometimes I help out other people and show them what to do. One day I’d like to have a job working outside.”

Conor lives in south Belfast with his mum Rosie, dad Michael, and sister, Louise. Since getting involved with L’Arche, his family have seen a big change in the young man.

“It’s great that there are projects like L’Arche that Conor can go to. I know he loves it and it makes me happy seeing him come here and seeing the enjoyment he gets from it,” said Rosie.

“Because of the Grow Cook Cater programme, he’ll be able to develop his skills more and increase his confidence in his abilities. He started the vegetable patch at home because of everything he’s learnt here so far.”

As well as being involved with L’Arche, Conor also works with the Orchardville Society, a charity that supports people with learning disabilities into employment and training.

Rosie said: “Conor also works at the business centre at Orchardville which is good work experience for him but he’s definitely an outdoors person — he loves being out in the garden and the allotments. He also helps out at conservation volunteers and attends Tap 2, a course at college run through Orchardville.

“Academic activities and school have always been hard for him. So he thrives more by doing outdoor activities and working with his hands. It’s definitely good for his health and well-being and has given him a goal for something he would like a career in. Getting the opportunity for work experience with the new project at L’Arche will be a good stepping stone for him to gain employment.”

L’Arche is based on the Ormeau Road and their allotments are on the Castlereagh Hills overlooking Belfast. They have over 100 raised beds which were built by young people with learning disabilities.

To learn more about the Grow Cook Cater programme, and about L’Arche, check out their website: https://www.larchebelfast.org.uk/grow-cook-cater/

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