Caring for Life: Leeds charity throwing a lifeline to the vulnerable

Peter Parkinson and Esther Smith.

Peter Parkinson and Esther Smith.

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A farm in Leeds has been giving hope to vulnerable people for almost 25 years. Grant Woodward visits the remarkable people behind it.

CRAG House Farm is a farm with a difference.

Located just outside Cookridge in Leeds, for nearly a quarter of a century it has thrown a lifeline to some of the city’s most vulnerable and damaged people.

It’s the base of Caring for Life, the remarkable charity founded by Peter Parkinson, the former pastor of Leeds Reformed Baptist Church, and ex-city social worker Esther Smith.

Its aim is to offer hope, a new family and a brighter future for those whose lives have been painful and aimless.

They include the woman with learning difficulties who was prostituted by her mum from the age of two, the woman who was raped by her stepfather every weekend for 15 years and the homeless man with autism who spent so long living rough at Leeds train station that he memorised the national rail timetables.

Peter and Esther met in 1972 (or “107 years ago”, as Peter jokes) when Esther was an 18-year-old student studying Hebrew and theology at Leeds University.

Peter’s church ran camps in Wales for Leeds children who came from deprived backgrounds and Esther started helping out.

Moved by the experience, soon she had swapped plans for a career in academia for a job with Leeds Social Services working in children’s care homes.

“I decided I didn’t want to spend my life in libraries teaching people something they weren’t interested in,” she says. “I wanted to make a bit of a difference.”

Concerned by a lack of support for young people when they left care which led to many falling into lives of petty crime, homelessness and drug addiction, the pair began hatching plans to do something themselves.

The result was Caring for Life.

At the time Crag House Farm was Peter’s home, he lived there with his wife and two sons. Having always wanted to put it to use helping others he promptly handed it over to the fledgling charity in 1987.

Back then it was little more than a farmhouse and a small amount of land, but over the years donors have helped buy more space, to the point where today it covers 120 acres.

It has allowed the organisation to provide a whole range of courses and activities to help those who come to them every day from all across the city.

There are agriculture-based activities, horse riding sessions, courses in animal care, catering, horticulture and conservation, as well as adult literacy and numeracy classes and workshops in arts and crafts, music and drama.

They are currently looking to recruit someone to run a butchery course and also hope to provide help to injured servicemen returning from Afghanistan.

“We clearly divide our projects between those that are therapeutic and those that offer work experience,” says Peter.

“The therapeutic value of the work with animals is enormous. We’ve found people will really talk to them and care for them.

“When our patron, the Countess of Wessex, visited recently one of our boys told her all about the shire horse he looks after. ‘I tell him everything I do,’ he said to her, ‘and he’s never told a soul’.

“We have people who you can hardly understand what they say and our drama teacher will have them doing Shakespeare and you can hear every single word.

“That helps them enormously in terms of speech therapy, relating to each other and most of all their confidence.”

As well as welcoming around 50 people a day to the farm, the charity runs a housing support project which looks after 160 people living throughout the city who are homeless or vulnerable.

It also has two homes – in Headingley and Yeadon – which offer long-term accommodation for men and women in need.

“People can stay there for life if they want to,” says Esther. “Most of the people living there are care leavers or have either learning difficulties, autism or mental health issues.

“They are somewhere people can live safely for as long as they need to, they can move on and go into a flat or live there for life.”

Over the years of working together Peter and Esther have become such firm friends that she even donated a kidney to him in 2003.

“For a long time I’ve had trouble with heart disease and I began to suffer with kidney failure and became really quite poorly,” he recalls.

He wasn’t suitable for an organ from someone who had died and was warned he would be a long way down the list to receive one from a live donor. Esther was tested, found to be compatible and gave him one of hers.

“We weren’t sure it was going to be a success so it was great when it was,” she says. I think Peter was worried about me but I was fine. I was very determined to do it but I think it was more difficult for him – it’s harder to receive than to give sometimes.”

“It’s a debt you can never repay,” says Peter. “I’m aware that I owe someone my life and it has given me a whole new lease of life. My family think the world of her, they’re very grateful.”

“It has been great for everyone,” says Esther, “for Peter’s family and the trust. Those in our care love him to bits.”

As a Christian charity, Esther and Peter say their objective is to bring God’s love to those they look after.

“We want to enable them to be what he intended them to be, which is a human being enjoying life to the full,” says Peter.

“We believe everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect because they’re made in God’s image. We want people to become everything they could be.”

“But if someone doesn’t embrace our faith that’s absolutely fine,” adds Esther. “We will help anybody.”

The working farm sells meat from its cows and sheep, along with plants and shrubs and has a popular cafe and farm shop which are open to the public and between them attract 2,000 people a month.

Last year the farm made just under £400,000, which comes in useful – along with the help of thousands of donors around the country and a small army of volunteers - when it comes to covering the charity’s annual £2.5m running costs.

But changing times mean this is something the charity will have to concentrate even more on in the future.

“Whilst we’ve been very grateful for it,” says Peter, “we always said that we would never be totally dependent on government funding because it’s so fickle and there are so many strings attached, plus the administrative costs are massive.

“Before 1945 there was no funding for charities and we’ve got to go back to that. We’ve got to forget that there might be money available from the government and encourage individuals to give as generously as they can and recognise that caring for people who aren’t as privileged as you are is not just the government’s job it’s your job and we have to get people involved.

“Our supporters are incredibly generous, many of them give every month, from people who give us £1 a week to those who give £200 every month.

“The future’s going to be difficult but we’re planning to expand and open new homes. We feel there is a huge need for people in Leeds with severe disabilities to be cared for.

“We also want to have homes for our own men and ladies that can take them through the rest of their lives.”

Memorised

Among those whose lives they have helped turn round is the man who memorised the train timetables. He was suffering from an undiagnosed case of Asperger’s syndrome, which can lead to serious behaviour problems.

He had been beaten by his father as a child, had a list of offences as long as your arm and was awaiting trial because he had wrecked a bail hostel.

“He had been very violent and we were told he couldn’t talk,” recalls Peter. “I had a feeling that he could, but wouldn’t. We interviewed him and told him he could have a place as long as he promised to behave himself.

“I said, ‘I need to hear you say yes or we can’t offer you a place’. At first he just shrugged but I said that if he spoke he could trust me not to tell anyone.

“Eventually he said ‘Yes’ he wanted to come and he’s still with us today. He’s still autistic but he’s greatly improved.

“And now,” Peter says with a smile, “you can’t stop him talking.”

* For more information visit www.caringforlife.co.uk or call (0113) 2303600

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