The Hope Project is a small fledgling charity that uses the great outdoors to help give therapy to disadvantaged youngsters, hosting residential groups from backgrounds that are typically alienated from outdoor pursuits and natural beauty. It was set up about four years ago in St Agnes, Cornwall, by outdoor instructor Sam Farmer and his partner Carla Watkins. Not everyone in St Agnes welcomed the arrival of the Project on their doorstep - to put it mildly. Since moving to the area 12 years ago the couple have been subjected to a prolonged campaign of racial harassment, with verbal and physical abuse culminating this January in a fire at the site that police are now investigating as arson.
A stable used as a studio and gear store was gutted in the attack. Climbing, camping and surfing equipment, musical instruments and all of Carla's art work were lost, with the total damage to building and contents amounting to £70,000. The building was unfortunately uninsured, because of high premiums following an earlier arson incident at the same site.
'When it happened I felt violated, ashamed and worst of all complicit because I knew that I was in an exclusive place' says Sam. 'My piano and guitars and writing went, so I felt that as an inner city person I was being disallowed these hobbies; I felt bad for the kids that loved the space and still had art in progress here; I felt like a liar to the kids to whom I'd said that not all people are bad; I felt stupid for the wasted dreams and all the wasted time. Have you ever tried to write a song with 'nigger' being shouted over the fence at you and others?'
The arson could have spelled the end of the project; but then something unexpected happened.
A thread about the incident was posted on the UKC forums. This gradually snowballed, leading to offers of replacement gear from all corners of the climbing community, and an ongoing fundraising effort to help the Project rise from the ashes. With issues such as planning permission for the rebuild and future site security still unresolved, this will be a long process.
'We're all still totally gobsmacked by the response' says Sam. 'Just to see someone talking about us, and the way that people [on the site] empathise with us is humbling.'
'Of course we will stay; there is no plan B except become sour, and I can't do that. But it's not easy receiving other peoples' generosity - I would rather give! So how do you say thanks?'
Sam's response to this question is in keeping with the sharing ethos of the Hope Project.
'I call it a Donor's Club' he says. 'What are we all after in life? A beautiful place to be in the outdoors. That's what I can offer people in return for their donations - the right to stay at St Agnes Beacon and use our facilities. That way the kids get their centre and the donors are getting a beautiful way to enjoy their giving and our surroundings.'
The difference between us is 0.05 mm thick and called melanin: he's black and I'm white. And I haven't been beaten-up, arrested, sworn at with my family in the street. Or had my home burnt down twice.
Sam and his family settled in Cornwall in 2000, about the only place he hadn't taught climbing and outdoor skills, after taking a course at Plas Y Brenin that changed the life he was looking at: a city kid cast adrift, 'adopted ' by bikers after being on the streets. Now The Hope Project provides a pathway for others, helping children that would never usually get access to the outdoors and its beauty and healing potential through walking, climbing, campcraft, sculpture, painting, horseriding and music. Children from distant cities, local Cornish towns, special needs schools. Not just black kids or asian kids or white kids: everyone.
It's all explained better in this interview Sam did with The Voice, 'Britain's Best Black Newspaper'.
Cornwall's most influential export was miners and mining technology, people who sent back money from all over the world for their families in hard times. Those countries accepted incomers and provided the money that helped keep Cornwall alive. So why has it not worked the other way round in this case? Jealously, fear of the unknown, ignorance, eye on a profit now that the land is worth more? Whatever it is, we have to help the Hope Project to ensure that this unique little bit of land can be enjoyed by everyone.
I'd seen the thread on UKC; I had a few free days, a car, spare gear and a real sense of 'this cannot be allowed in modern Britain'. Roadtrip! Eschewing baseball bats and gaffa tape for the bigots & racists, my car boot filled with new ropes, rock shoes, boots, hardware, gloves, tents and sleeping bags from kindly, yet outraged, UKCers.
I arrived at Sam & Carla's and was met with such warmth, big grins, beer and one of the best (and largest) curries ever. Cool! We went up to the Beacon in the dark. An awful juxtaposition of a building burned to the ground, bike frames, plastic, artwork, even shoes, with a wonderful piece of countryside. Climbing to the trig point, we saw almost the whole of Cornwall: St Austell to St Ives, to the north coast and the lights leading away to Land's End. And a big faceful of rain, wind & hail.
Next morning we went back, and the uniqueness of The Beacon was revealed. Part of a World Heritage landscape, the Beacon Mining Pits are also Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). There are Bronze Age surface tin mines. The Beacon is the only official hill in Cornwall next to cliffs, beaches and the South West Coastal path. There is a 360-degree view that goes out for 55 miles. This is stunning, this is special, this is true natural culture. So much so that the Cornish Sinfonia want to play in the amphitheatre Sam built, comparing it to the famous 'theatre in the rock'. Looking over the shoulders of the Sinfonia, the audience would see Trevaunance Cove and the North Cornish coast snaking away to Land's End, with the Atlantic crashing softly on the beaches and cliffs. Ok, maybe not so softly... A Queen's Jubilee Beacon is going to be lit just behind the amphitheatre in June.
Sam took me on a short walk that showed the best of Cornwall and just how perfect a location Beacon Hill is for something like the Hope Project. There are no roads between Beacon Hill and the coastline, only footpaths and gentle slopes. We strolled peacefully through the grass, heather and gorse, greeting a lone runner. We then took a short diversion to a small disused quarry, perhaps 15-20 metres or so high, with some intriguing looking cracks, ramps & corners. Nice!
The South West Coastal Path appeared after maybe 20 minutes' walking, and then the magnificence of Trevaunance Cove showed. It's a site for bodyboarding championships and you can see why - a beautiful wide stretch of golden sand, nice little breakers. There are rockpools for the little'uns to splash in and some great looking cliffs towering above. Even better is The Driftwood Spars pub about 100 metres from the beach, a microbrewery freehouse that's just won Supreme Champion Winter Beer of Britain 2012 for 'Alfie's Revenge'.
The Beacon of Hope Heritage Trust is a not-for-profit business geared toward youth work, diverse communities' inclusion and social justice programs through counselling, activities, furniture reclamation therapies and related services. Through the use of outdoor pursuits, art, music, eco-therapies and more, the goal is to unite the mixed heritages of Great Britain through social interaction, recreation and our celebrated differences so that we can together make a better society. Firstly it will be focusing on outreach youth programs based at St Agnes Beacon to serve Devon and Cornwall but also working with partnerships in Liverpool, Birmingham, and Llanberis, North Wales. The Project has so far helped over 300 young people and will hopefully provide a beacon of hope for many more.
The Project plan is to take groups of kids, individuals and also families. There will be supervised activities like walking, painting, music, storytelling even a pool, so carers and parents can have a bit of a break as well. There is a fantastic storytelling area with a giant-sized storychair and fireplaces around the site for every direction of the wind: great idea!
The Hope Project almost has enough money to submit a planning application for rebuilding, thanks largely to UKC providing a premier post; there's only about another £800 to go folks, chip in if you're able! UKC user Peter Simpson (aka Simmy) who works for web hosting firm Hosutu has also helped the Project by organising a website, an online donation system, hosting and emails.
'Many charities rely heavily on grants and public contributions' says Peter. 'Much of this money goes to good causes and even staffing and running costs which often leaves very little left in the pot for advertising and branding. With internet media now being the best way to promote services and raise funds it has never been as important for small charities to have assistance getting their message out there. Being climbers ourselves and part of the UKC community, supporting the Farmer family is something we just had to get involved with. We hope the project continues to evolve and hope the community behind the recent support continues to assist its development.'
There are many plans: Sam's got business qualifications from CIC and is committed to the 'triple bottom line' of environmental benefit, social benefit and only then profit, which is earmarked for further projects... Chamonix, anyone? Donate, you could maybe have a holiday field for life!
Erica B's thread on UKC produced many heartwarming responses with offers of gear, building help, letters to the council etc. What we need to do now is keep the pressure up, showing that we support the Hope Project's ideals, that we are standing up for what's right and we are watching. We are not going to let this pass, it will not be swept under the carpet.
Just a last thought: June 1 til June 5, what about a possible gathering? Run To The Sun is on at Perranporth Beach on June 4, so this would make an interesting weekend for a barbie & meet-up.
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