Herbalist Maria Billington got the impetus to take on a community space from the council after a visit to the Eden Project. Gatis Street Adventure Playground was destined for closure due to lack of funding and Maria was struggling to find a way forward. After experiencing what she has dubbed 'the Eden effect', Gatis Community Space is now thriving.
After qualifying as a herbalist, Wolverhampton-based Maria had been keen to find a way to use her knowledge about plants and herbs for the benefit of the community. So when the opportunity came up in 2013 to take over a space at the council-run Gatis Street Adventure Playground near where she lives, she jumped at the chance.
With the help of local volunteers, Maria started to clear the area. Her team did everything from picking up litter to felling trees. 'What we revealed was an ideal place to start growing and teaching young people how to grow things. It helped us to restore a sense of pride in the space, as people realised someone cared.’ Gatis Community Space was born.
However, due to lack of funding, a year later the community garden was destined for closure and Maria was struggling to find a way forward. ‘I was ready to give it all up,' says Maria .
What Maria did
It was at this crisis point when Maria discovered the work that Eden was doing with communities. She attended a Community Camp at the Eden Project, funded by the National Lottery, which was set up to help those like Maria gain insight and inspiration around taking their projects forward. She found herself among a like-minded group of dedicated, hard working volunteers from across the country, all of whom were there to share their experiences and help each other.
‘By the end of the weekend I was full of great ideas and determined that we could take on building Gatis up as a greater community asset' says Maria, 'I was on what we’ve since dubbed ‘the Eden Effect’. I have never felt so enthused in all my life!’
Maria returned home and set up weekly meetings with the other volunteers. ‘We looked at what was already happening in the area to see how we could be different, because the Community Camp had really made me see how things stagnate and how you need to change to keep them fresh.’
The newly formed committee created a document proposing what they would like to do at Gatis and submitted this to the council and local residents, who were all impressed. With the support of two mentors from the council, in May 2015 the committee was given a six-month trial to have the building and grounds transferred to them as an asset. They are now offering regular family play days, a community café, a forest school area, gardening clubs, youth activities, sewing and upcycling clubs, and wildflower and nature clubs.
‘It’s early days' says Maria, 'but the response we're getting is amazing.’ She's since been invited to take part in many different things locally. ‘I’m suddenly finding people want my advice or opinion. It’s most certainly down to the information and ideas triggered by time at the Eden Project.’