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The charity making life better by water

Paddling a way out of poverty

As an unprecedented cost-of-living crisis follows the pandemic, we know there are many diverse communities living close to our canals facing real hardship. That’s why we’ve teamed up with Sport England to help distribute the ‘Together Fund’ worth a total of £120,000 to community groups in Manchester, Oldham and Rochdale helping people find a way through these toughest of times, by water.

A group of people kayaking

Earlier this summer, Waterfront visited one such project in Failsworth, on the Rochdale Canal in Greater Manchester. Hidden away by Lock 66, we discovered a special community garden and orchard by the water that's becoming an oasis of hope for the local community.

Opening the gate to her beautiful, secret canal-side garden, horticulturist Victoria Holden explains that this is her chance to bring together two of her passions: “I spent 24 years in youth and community work, but I come from a green-fingered family as well. When we came across this site, I just fell in love with it because it was a huge opportunity to use my passion for growing food to help people facing food poverty.

Food and gardening are universal. People from all backgrounds, ethnicities, ages come together around food, sharing recipes, dishes and growing tips. It brings back memories, whether you've worked on your grandad's allotment in Oldham, or you grew up on a farm in Pakistan or Uganda.

Now we're growing things everyone in our community loves to eat. Whether that's British apples and pears from our orchard of 166 trees, Asian aubergines, chillies, ginger; African yams, sweet potatoes or maize, or a kind of Caribbean spinach called callaloo. Everything is grown with ‘no-dig', organic and ‘grow-local' principles in mind. We're producing food from all over the world in Manchester, with no air miles involved.

A woman standing among plants in a greenhouse

Of course, we're giving people something free and healthy to eat, but you can help people make money from the extra produce too. We want to set up a social enterprise making jams, chutneys and juices to sell. We'd love to set up a café, serving dishes from all around the world. There's a lady with bee-keeping skills who'll be producing honey for us, and a chicken run that will produce fresh free-range eggs. Another member of the group will be running a ‘rent-a-goat' service, where you can hire a hungry kid to keep your garden weeds down. All of this will help raise funds that people in our groups can call on for the basic things many local people just don't have, like clothes for the children or furniture for the home.”

But where, you might wonder, does the canal come in? “This site is right by a canal that is very well used by local people,” says Victoria. “The Canal & River Trust helped us apply for a £10,000 ‘Together Fund' from Sport England to help us set up a water sports hub on the land, right next to the community garden and orchard. We're building a store that will open out onto the towpath, buying paddleboards, kayaks and canoes and training local people to become water sports coaches. Everyone can use it, from the local sea cadets to our WOW (Women on Water) Project.

It's a chance to challenge people who might never have spent any time on the water to find the strength to try new things and build their confidence. We're hoping it will be an activity on the water that will really catch local people's eyes and bring them through our doors. Everyone in Failsworth is welcome.”

Sara Ponting, Together Fund Engagement Co-ordinator for our charity explains that this grant is just one of many she hopes to make in the region. “We know the pandemic and cost of living crisis disproportionately affects people on lower incomes and in culturally diverse areas, as well as people with long-term health conditions and people living with disabilities. These are exactly the people we want to support. My job is to reach-out to community groups, so that the funding goes to the people who need it most.

For us, sport means any physical activity that improves people's physical and mental health. For instance, we're also funding a towpath cycling group for mostly older people with long-term health issues, based in Chinatown in the centre of Manchester, so they can overcome the isolation that often follows language barriers.”

A young woman standing in front of the canal with kayakers in the background

It's help that's much needed in Failsworth, as Rose from the Support & Action Women's Network (SAWN) explains: “When I came to the UK from Uganda, I soon realised that this country is very different to home. Back there, everything is based on community and family. Here everyone just looks after themselves. We started SAWN in 2004 so that women still have a source of support.

A group of three women facing camera

Many of the women we care for have an uncertain immigration status. These are often educated women with degrees and PHDs. But without a visa or citizenship they cannot work legally. Until their case is decided, many women have no recourse to public funds, which means you cannot claim most benefits. The government only give you £35 per week to live on. That is what real poverty looks like.

And that's before the personal issues people are dealing with. We meet women who have been traumatised by human trafficking, modern slavery, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, or are living with HIV. Some women are separated from their children back home, or are single parents trying to raise a family over here on nothing.

What we do in SAWN is bring people together. Give them somewhere to share food, grow food, sing in a choir, or take part in activities like the paddleboarding. And with that community comes the listening, the healing, the sharing of problems, and the suggestion of solutions. The therapeutic part of it is very important, because people just don't need food, or money, they need the confidence and the strength to survive. And that comes from having a community around them.”

A woman standing with paddleboard paddle in hand

Mary-Anne is a much-loved member of SAWN and she came along today to find out how a ‘Together Fund' from the Canal & River Trust and Sport England might support her ambitions to start a women's support group of her own. But as she told us, first she needs to regain her own balance and self-confidence again.

“When I first saw the paddleboards, I thought, no way! But then I said to myself, this can't be harder than what you're going through right now, so just do it. I was a bit wobbly at first. Very wobbly in fact. But after a few tries, I suddenly found this moment of calm. And that's what I've learned from today. That pushing yourself might be scary, but you can achieve anything you want.

For a long time, I've hidden away from trying new things or meeting new people because I didn't want to draw attention to myself and be deported. And that left me isolated and depressed. Now my thinking has changed. And the paddleboarding was a reminder. Yes, you may be broken. But you can do anything you want.”

As Mary-Anne, Rose, Sara and Victoria have shown, Canal & River Trust and Sport England are using time by water to bring women together in a special place, where they can overcome poverty thanks to the strength of powerful community.

Last Edited: 03 October 2022

photo of a location on the canals
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