OPENING THE GATES FOR GOOD
Our June 2019 talk - reviewed by Mike Chitty
Over 40 people were present on 17th June to hear Major Allister Versfeld, the Salvation Army's Mission Development Officer for Strawberry Field. Over 60,000 people a year, he told us, have been visiting the gates in Beaconsfield Road, Woolton, just to look at them and take photographs. The reason is the Beatles song, Strawberry Fields Forever, written by John Lennon and inspired by his childhood memories of living nearby. From September of this year, people will be able to go beyond the gates, and visit an exhibition centre, café, souvenir shop and garden/woodland area, all the components of which will provide training and job opportunities for young people with learning difficulties. From the visitor's point of view, the attraction will be the words and music of John Lennon, experienced in a place that was familiar to him.
Allister summarised the history of the site, and explained how the original Victorian house had been purchased by the Salvation Army as a children's home in the 1930s, replaced by a purpose-built establishment in the 1970s, which in turn was closed down in 2005 as policies changed in favour of 'care in the community'. For over ten years the building lay empty as its owners wondered what to do with it. Eventually it was decided to make it the hub of a new venture - the Steps to Work programme - aimed at improving the employment prospects of 18-25 year olds. Only 7% of people with learning difficulties, we were told, currently get into paid employment. The Steps to Work programme aims to "educate employers, equip trainees and engage the community" - and to "raise the eyes and lift the heads" of the young people involved. There is, in addition, a spiritual aspect to the project - 'Fresh Expressions' - which is reflected in the provision of a Chapel for visitors, other areas for quiet contemplation, and a 'talk table' in the café to reduce feelings of isolation.
Only a proportion of the trainees will find permanent work at Strawberry Field. Partnerships with colleges and employers are being developed, with training places being negotiated and 'support into work' being offered after the formal course has finished.
Allister's presentation sparked off a large number of questions, the first one being: When will it be open? (We now know that the date is Saturday 14th September, the proposed opening hours being 10am-6pm, seven days a week). What facilities will there be for coach parking? (None on site, but a drop-off layby on Beaconsfield Road to ease the current congestion problems). Will it be financially viable? ("We have donors all over the world" was the reply, though the hope is that the income from the exhibition admission charges, the café and the shop will make a substantial contribution towards the running costs).
Those of us who attended Allister's talk went away full of admiration for the project, and looking forward to visiting the café and grounds on a regular basis after they open in September.