“We welcome anyone interested in being here, be they student or volunteer. We strive to liberate and stimulate the imagination, to celebrate participation and include all.”

I’ve just enjoyed the most inspirational and heart-warming morning finding out about The Butterfly Project near Cheltenham and shooting the breeze with its founding visionary, Chris Evans. It’s not often I start writing in a celebratory mood these days; and it’s great.

All too often one hears or reads about an apparently ground-breaking initiative only to find that there’s a chasm between the hype and reality – not so at The Butterfly Garden!

“The Butterfly garden is an educational, therapeutic and recreational scheme, based initially on gardening, but now offering so much more. It is a project for people of all ages dealing with disablement of any kind. It caters for those looking to escape the world, those looking to re-enter it and some, who are still just looking. Its doors are open to anyone without obligation.”

Chris, a 3rd generation nurseryman who was happily sustaining the family business, didn’t set out to be a ‘community entrepreneur’. Nor did he, I believe, consciously set out to demonstrate that the transactional approach to ‘social care’ is misguided and toxic. It is simply that he doesn’t relate to the world that way and his generosity of spirit and inclusiveness rubs off on those around him – creating community.

He describes his approach to life as satisfying a need for ‘adventures’, and believes that we all need ‘adventures’ and, from what I witnessed, to be validated as contributing social actors.

The initiative started off in a small way when a local school asked if Chris would introduce 6 autistic kids to gardening. What started as a Wednesday afternoon ‘class’ mushroomed as the word got around and more children were welcomed. Then, following a telephone enquiry about what Chris surmised to be more children, two disabled adults turned up with a support worker and, it seems as Chris recounts it, that this was a Damascene moment. At that moment Chris was busy, so he gave one of them the key to his office and suggested that they made a brew. The man to whom he’d given the office key burst in to tears – tears of joy it transpired as he explained that this was his first experience of being trusted and respected as a peer.

“Our provision is free, with people neither paying nor being paid for their involvement.”

Since then, over 20 years, The Butterfly Garden has spread its wings – a place where everyone, be they seeking support or volunteering can share their gifts.

You can find out about the wealth on offer by visiting www.thebutterflygarden.org

It’s too easy to perceive what Chris has achieved as an anomaly, an exotic exception to the rule. He is, I think, a driven, principled and inherently entrepreneurial man who thrives on relationships and collaboration. He’s understood the pitfalls of accepting the loaded ‘gifts’ proffered by the transactional system. He is wary of allowing anything to happen that risks redefining the project’s contributing citizens as vulnerable adults and service users. And he’s done it against the grain, as has LivesthroughFriends.

But, I would assert that neither Chris nor ourselves at LivesthroughFriends are particularly special – we’ve just enjoyed and exploited our opportunities to be what contributing citizens can be. We represent just the tip of an iceberg of communal wealth and goodwill that is stifled by the misguided commodification of public services and consequential undermining of competent communities. The Butterfly Garden absolutely demonstrates that when citizens have the opportunity to give their gifts they flock to do so.

Let’s be clear, this is no flash in the pan. It’s been going 20 years and it continues to evolve!

The way forward for care in our communities lies in dismantling the market in public services and reinvesting in enabled and competent communities enhanced by complementary, supplementary and locally determined services.

Bob Rhodes

20th September 2022