Newspaper for Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Newry and Down.

Fund helps boost An Tobar Community Wellness Centre

An innovative social enterprise in Silverbridge is using horticulture to improve the wellbeing of the local community. Every week up to 400 people, including schoolchildren, adults with learning difficulties and dementia patients, are benefitting from programmes at An Tobar Community Wellness Centre and Social Farm, based in Finnegan’s Nursery in the village.

Opened just last year, a £30,000 loan from the Building Better Futures Fund has afforded the centre to improve access and disabled facilities, expand its services and support the planting of 13,000 trees in a new community woodland. The £1m Building Better Futures fund was launched in 2017 and is a unique collaboration between Belfast Charitable Society, Ulster Community Investment Trust (UCIT) and Building Change Trust. The fund, which provides support in the way of a loan, is aimed at community-based groups seeking to make a positive difference to society across Northern Ireland.

The founders of An Tobar – sisters Margaret Finnegan and Kathleen Finnegan-Agnew –   have been running their award winning garden centre since the 1980s, but after thirty years in business they realized they could use their horticultural skills to benefit the local community.  

With six full-time staff and ten volunteers, An Tobar is now providing educational gardening programmes in 11 local schools, social farming services for Southern Health & Social Care Trust, therapeutic horticulture for elderly people and work placements for adults with learning difficulties.  They also provide a range of nature based programmes for groups including Sure Start South Armagh, Carers Trust, Newry & Mourne Alzheimer’s Society and the WALD Centre, Cullyhanna. 

l-r: Teresa Evans (Carers’ group participant), Kathleen Finnegan-Agnew (An Tobar), Margaret Finnegan (An Tobar), Jonathan Evans (Social Farming participant), John Reel (customer), Marie Mooney, (Libby’s Tearoom), Roma Gribben (Carers’ group participant), Dillon McNamee (work experience student), Barney Conlon (Social Farming participant) and Pat Finnegan.

Speaking of the initiative, Kathleen Finnegan-Agnew, who founded An Tobar with her sister Margaret, said: “After several decades of working in a commercial background we reached a stage in our lives where we wanted to do something that would benefit the local community.  We always knew that working outdoors with nature had great therapeutic potential, but we have been genuinely amazed at how it has helped people reintegrate with the community and regain their confidence. The demand for services keeps growing and growing; we are really busy, but we’re loving every minute.”

Praising the financial backing received from the Building Better Futures Fund, Kathleen added: “Initially we sought funding from High Street banks, but they just didn’t have the flexibility to accommodate our business model. The Building Better Futures Fund embraced the concept from the outset.  We’re now in a position to significantly enhance our facilities and plan for our next phase of growth.”

Marie Mooney, (Libby’s Tearoom) and Jonathan Evans (Social Farming participant).

Jonathan Evans, one of An Tobar’s Social Farming participants said: ‘’I love coming here every week. It is my favourite place to go.  I love working with the animals on the farm and doing gardening work.’’  

Paula Reynolds, CEO of Belfast Charitable Society, one of the charities behind the Fund, praised the initiative. “We are delighted that the Fund can help such initiatives,” she said. “An Tobar uses local natural beauty and resources to engage and help so many people improve their health and mindfulness. In doing so it plays a significant role in the local community at a time when there is a greater emphasis on finding practical responses to improving individual and community health and wellbeing. We wish them every success in the future.”

l-r: Sisters Kathleen Finnegan-Agnew and Margaret Finnegan (Founder-Directors of An Tobar), Sally Holmes, Erskine Holmes (UCIT), Jonathan Evans (Social Farming participant), Pat Finnegan (Kathleen and Margaret’s father) and Paula Reynolds (Belfast Charitable Society).

Social Farming is a relatively new concept to Northern Ireland which uses agriculture to promote therapy, rehabilitation, social inclusion, education and social services.  At present An Tobar’s social farm gives adults an opportunity to feed cattle, cut timber, grow vegetables and flowers, and take part in other day-to-day farming tasks. The funding from Building Better Futures will help provide pigs, hens and chicken coops to further add to the experience.