A Newcastle children’s charity is giving young people with learning disabilities the chance to develop new workplace and personal skills in the open air thanks to a four-figure grant from Newcastle Building Society.

Smile For Life is launching a new work placement scheme at the Rectory Road Allotments in Gosforth which gives students supervised responsibility for preparing, planting, nurturing and harvesting a range of different crops.

The Green Beams allotment complements the charity’s existing Café Beam on Gosforth High Street, which also provides work experience and volunteering opportunities for service users in a busy customer service environment.

The first students will start work next month, with up to a dozen placements expected to be completed in the project’s first year – and all the produce that the students grow at the 30ft by 10ft allotment will be taken to Café Beam to be prepared and served to customers.

The project is being funded by a £4,000 grant from Newcastle Building Society, which has been used to purchase the tools, seeds and other equipment required to get it up and running, as well as to cover the additional staffing costs it entails.

The funding is being provided through the Newcastle Building Society Community Fund at the Community Foundation, which offers grants to charities and community groups located in or around the communities served by the Society’s branch network.

In the first half of 2021, the Society is directing its support to a range of projects tackling issues linked to employability, as part of helping its communities manage, mitigate and recover from the impacts of Covid-19.

Established in 2008, Smile For Life works to empower disabled and disadvantaged young people across North East England to achieve their potential to live a full and happy life.

As well as skills development opportunities, it provides a range of assistance which is tailored to the needs of each young person it supports, including equipment which makes their day-to-day lives easier, accessible sports and games sessions, and experiences which enable them to make memories and challenge themselves in new and exciting ways.

Paula Gascoigne, chief executive at Smile For Life, says: “Café Beam is a fantastic resource, but not everybody wants to work in or feels comfortable in that sort of environment, so we’d been looking for a way in which to extend the work placement opportunities that we offer.

“One of our supporters has her own allotment at Rectory Road, and after we approached the committee to see if they could help us, they very kindly gave us access to a spare piece of land which has now become the Green Beams allotment.

“As well as enabling our students to develop practical skills which they might use in future employment or volunteering roles, these placements are also designed to be therapeutic and will help them build their social skills and self-confidence, which can often be just as important.

“All the crops are being planted to a specific plan, and we can’t wait to be able to taste the first meals that our Café Beam team makes with the resulting produce later this year.

“The generous support we’ve had from Newcastle Building Society has enabled us to put everything in place to support the placements over the long-term and we’re very excited to be starting work.”

Lynn Richardson, manager at Newcastle Building Society’s Gosforth High Street branch, adds: “Smile For Life already makes such a difference to the lives of so many local young people and their families, and we’re excited that Green Beams is going to give green fingers to lots of members of our community

“The allotment will provide them with new skills and experiences, opening doors and opportunity for everyone involved, so we’re  proud to have been able to help one of our Gosforth neighbours put their plans into action.”

Since its launch in 2016, Newcastle Building Society’s Community Fund has also contributed over £2.1m in grants and partnerships to a wide variety of charities and projects across the region, including the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation and the Prince’s Trust.

The grants are so far estimated to have had a positive impact on more than 151,000 people.

The Newcastle Building Society Community Fund is run in association with the Community Foundation Tyne & Wear and Northumberland.