Norwich conservation scheme puts offenders on right track

It seemed like an unlikely recipe for success when it was launched at Whitlingham country park in November last year.

Take a bunch of ex-offenders unused to discipline or work of any kind and turn them into countryside rangers toiling five days a week through one of the toughest winters of recent years.

But thanks to the eternal optimism of Norwich charity organiser Dawn Jackson, the inspirational leadership of former Para Dion Gilvey and the raw enthusiasm of the recruits themselves, the project, Baseline on the Broads (Bob), has won universal acclaim – and even attracted the interest of home secretary Theresa May.

And the positive impact of the 'Bob Boys' has not escaped the attention of country park users who have been quick to voice their gratitude regarding all the hard work, from building steps and repairing fences to coppicing, bush management and even building otter holts.

As the first of two six-month programmes comes to a conclusion this month there has been not a single drop-out among the nine recruits, whose attendance has remained impeccable despite having to get out of bed to face the snow and ice of November and December.

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Ms Jackson, chief executive of Future Projects, a charity offering community services on the city's Larkman estate, worked with offender management services and a range of other agencies including Norfolk County Council and the Broads Authority, to devise a scheme that could give a helping hand to people many would think beyond help.

Partly funded by a �24,000 grant from the Broads Authority's sustainable development fund, the scheme has provided six months of paid conservation work combined with education and training at Easton College.

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And Ms Jackson's optimism has been rewarded by the fact that one of the recruits has already found a full-time gardening job while all the others are eager to land their first job. Surprised by the fact the home secretary chose to drop in on the scheme last week during her visit to the region, she said: 'One important thing to be learned, I think, is that education is better for these people than any sanction. It does not work if they are going in and out of prison all the time.'

Highlighting the beneficial impact of the natural environment, she said the group had been in the middle of a huge row one day 'until a sparrowhawk swooped out of the sky to take a pigeon when there was sudden, amazed silence'.

Project co-ordinator Mr Gilvey agreed that working in the environment of the Broads had been an important ingredient in the scheme's success.

He said: 'Growing up on an estate, two of the recruits had not even seen a broad before. One remarked 'this is something like you see on films'.'

He said there had been the odd hiccough but the recruits, who range in age from 18 to 37, had responded brilliantly.

'We set targets for the work each day and they always exceeded them –they were even wading out through ice doing work,' he said.

Luke Kett, 21, of Beecheno Road, was thought by some – but never Ms Jackson or Mr Gilvey – to be the least likely to make the grade with his record of drunken violence that had seen him spend four years in custody. However, he achieved the best attendance, missing just two sessions, and said: 'I am now motivated, willing and looking for some kind of outdoor job. My CV looks good and Baseline has helped me more than any Jobcentre.'

He said his brother, Leon, 25, who has never had a job was now signed up for the second course.

Adrian Wright, 22, also of Beecheno Road, described Bob as 'inspirational', saying he had learned empathy and teamwork and it had built his self-respect.

'I have also improved my education with a range of qualifications, including first aid,' he said.

COMMENT – page 22

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