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New woodland garden for residents of Sawbridgeworth neuro centres

Volunteers have created a woodland sanctuary for the residents of Jacobs and Gardens Neuro Centres to enjoy with their families and carers.

The two neuro centres behind the Rivers Hospital deliver care and rehabilitation for 112 adults with complex neurological conditions resulting from traumatic brain or spinal injury, stroke, brain tumours, and degenerative neurological conditions such as Parkinsons or Multiple Sclerosis. Many residents have severe physical, cognitive and sometimes behaviour problems, requiring specialised 24-hour nursing care.

In 2012, a small number of family members got together to improve the lives of residents in ways that Ramsay, the company which owns the centres, and the NHS which funds the majority of residents, cannot. They created a charity, the Friends of Sawbridgeworth Neuro Centres, whose most ambitious project to date is the woodland. Commandeering a bramble-covered wasteland next to the centres, they recruited a huge team of volunteers - including tree surgeons, plantsmen, and professional path layers - to create a tranquil place for quiet contemplation. To fund the project, marathons have been run, water towers abseiled down, mountains climbed, raffles run, teas made and plants donated.

"By creating this woodland sanctuary, we would like to think that we have provided the residents, their families and the staff with an alternative way of finding a pleasant place to recharge their batteries and enjoy some quiet time together," said Chair Sheila Henderson at a ceremony to mark the opening of the woodland. She went on to quote John Muir, a Scottish 19th century naturalist. "One thing that he said about the value of woodlands was that “Trees give peace to the souls of men” and I firmly believe he is right. He also noted that “To walk in nature is to witness a thousand miracles”. I hope in a small way our woodland can provide that peace, tranquillity and sometimes miraculous experience that all woodlands do for our residents, whose lives have often been cruelly disrupted through no fault of their own."

The sensory experience was enhanced at the 'grand opening' by St Mary's Brass Band, Sheering, and a smattering of rain. Inspired by the music, resident Bashir Dirir, a Somalian musician known by his nickname 'Jooqle,' sang with his brothers Hasan and Ahmed, while their mother looked on. In his two years at the centre, Bashir's brothers said he has shown huge improvement, and is now able to eat by himself.

One woodland trail is named after another resident, Toby Chaplin, in recognition of the huge fund raising efforts of his friends and family (see box). Ms Henderson also gave a special thanks to Tesco’s Community Fund, Stansted Airport Trust, and the Harlow Tye Rotary Club, whose members offered hands on support as well as raising money.

"Sheila came to our club raising money for the sensory room," said President David Davison of an earlier project. "Muggins here said 'yes, I'll come down and have a look,' - and the rest is history."

Ramsay CEO Andy Jones praised the friends' charity for bringing together residents' families and the local community and creating an incredible community spirit. Announcing that the centres are expanding to offer an additional 20 beds, he said: "We pledge to look after this space."

Head of Clinical Services Rita Applin said the woodland enhances residents' quality of life. "The different smells and colours, the quietness, the feeling of the wind on your face - these are pleasures the residents can still enjoy."

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