TAFE & Adult Provision Green thumbs and big smiles: disability education in the garden

Green-fingered AEU member Craig Bennetts. Photo: Meredith O’Shea

Working with clients on re-vegetation and recycling projects, disability educator and horticulturalist Craig Bennetts has combined his passions.

Craig Bennetts has always had green fingers. His grandparents and his mum instilled in him a love of the outdoors as a very young lad and it stuck to him like dirt to a toddler’s knees.

Finding peace in the back garden, he pursued this passion through school and went on to study horticulture at Burnley. Planning to become a professional gardener, it was while he and his wife were both job-hunting that she suggested something which changed Craig’s course unexpectedly.

“She’s was looking at jobs in the community services section of the newspaper for herself when she saw a plant nursery role advertised that involved supporting people with intellectual disability,” he recalls. “It was something I’d never considered.”

Joining a not-for-profit organisation specialising in assisting people with intellectual disability, he found the work proved to be a natural extension of his abilities and his calm temperament.

“It’s great how things worked out, because working with indigenous plants on re-vegetation projects is a low-stimulation, relaxing environment, so for some of the folks that we work with, who can get quite overwhelmed, it really helps them, while learning new skills.”

Craig, who has been an AEU rep for three and a half years, says it’s rewarding to see how his clients flourish. “Through your own enthusiasm and passion, you can see the subtle ways in which you can have a really positive impact.”

“The main focus of your day is ensuring that the people you support have the best day they possibly can. I really enjoy making those connections.”

His role has expanded into a variety of in-community support services, including a cooking program based in Warrandyte in conjunction with a local community church.

“Over time you definitely see your clients’ skill base increase and, because it’s based in the community, they also start to build up that social connection,” he says. “That’s really important, and it’s great for the broader community too, to get to know people living with intellectual disabilities.”

Sustainability is at the root of gardening, and it’s inherent in his NDIS support role too, with a recycling program where clients are encouraged to save as much as possible from going into general waste. That spins out into another novel way of working in the local community.

“We take some waste, like plastic bottles, and turn them into feed dispensers for animal shelters, so our clients get to be around dogs or cats who need a bit of love and a sense of calm in that situation.”

Getting to work with people living with intellectual disability is greatly rewarding, says Craig. “The main focus of your day is ensuring that the people you support have the best day they possibly can. I really enjoy making those connections.”

It’s the individual transformations that ensure he so often heads home with a big smile on his face. “Over the years, I’ve worked with so many clients who have started off very insular, they just don’t have much access to the community at all. Working with them as a team in conjunction my colleagues, you get to see first-hand how that personal growth benefits them as they begin to get out and about, meeting new people and enjoying new experiences without the stress. We all chip in together and all of those small advances are so rewarding.”

It's important to bring a positive attitude to working with people with disability. Photo: Meredith O'Shea.

He gets a similar kick from his role as a union rep and says he’s been blessed by brilliant colleagues, giving him a genuine sense of pride in supporting them. “Over the years I’ve worked with some fantastic people and that has been a big drawcard for me. Everyone’s been very supportive and encouraging.”

He adds, “It’s an invaluable position to be in, as a union rep, because you’re really aware of what’s happening at the grassroots level, what needs improving, and how we can work together to get that continuous improvement met, both here and across the sector.

“Again, it wasn’t something I planned, it’s just that as time has gone on, I’ve taken on more responsibility and it’s been quite enriching, looking at life from another angle. My negotiating skills have definitely been enhanced.”

Craig is hopeful that with collaborative communication across the sector, any kinks in the roll-out of the NDIS can lead to a happy, healthy industry for everyone involved. “I think that’s why I’ve stuck around for so long. You mention to people that you’ve been in one place for 17 years and they sort of give you that funny look, but I love it. At the end of the day, you’re just trying to improve the lives of people with intellectual disabilities.”

And another thing… 10 Questions for Craig Bennetts

The most important thing I take into my job every day is… a good mood, because in our line of work, I find if that if you’re having a bad day, it filters down to the people we support.

The most important thing to leave at home is… a bad mood.

The best advice I ever received was… when I first started at Accord and my manager told me, “Stand back and observe until you feel confident to engage in a situation.”

My top piece of advice to someone starting out in disability support would be… the same advice I was given. I pass that on to everyone.

My favourite teacher was… my statistics lecturer at La Trobe when I studied computer science and mathematics in a past life, before leaving that for horticulture. She was a real mentor.

The people I admire most are… my colleagues who support me every day.

The book that changed my life was… Ocean Machine: Biomech by Devin Townsend because it takes me to another place every time I hear it, a true soundscape.

In my other life, I am… in the garden, that’s just what I do.

If I met the education minister… I’d remind him that healthcare and education are a priority, and how important it is to remember that every day.

The most important thing the union does for its members is… just letting them know that that support is there. It’s almost like an insurance policy for rainy days.

 

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