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A few years ago, we started running some gardening and sustainability courses with our ‘Green Queen’ tutor Eilish at the Clonakilty FET Centre.  These groups were always busy planting seeds and digging plots and went from strength to strength each year, taking on modules in vegetable crop production, plant propagation and community participation.  In 2019 they worked together to decorate the garden of the local community hospital with sustainable, biodegradable decorations, which was a project they looked forward to running again in 2020. They had great plans for a polytunnel which would allow them to get more involved in local community projects.  Of course, we all know that 2020 held so many unexpected events for us, not least this green-fingered group.

On March 12th 2020, we closed the doors of the FET centre in Clonakilty, not knowing how our groups would manage to keep up with their studies or keep their projects moving along.  The weeks before Easter went by in the blur.  And the door stayed shut.  Zoom was not something people even knew about yet.  So the group kept in touch by messaging each other, trying to come to terms with this ‘new normal’.

What was evident early on was that this was one group who would not allow distance to keep them apart.  Their tutor posted their assignments to them and they continued to work towards a newly reworked project that would allow them to grow plants and vegetables from their own homes with the aim of distributing them later on in the early Summer. The project culminated in the group filling the back of a van, parking up in the centre of Clonakilty town, gloved and masked, offering free plants to passing members of the community.  Having been through such a difficult time that Spring, this was a wonderful, blue sky day where the group got to see the results of all of their hard work in isolation.

The group is made up of 8 women and 1 man.  They represent many age groups. Some of them have been cocooning this past year and some got the opportunity to come back to some classes in Autumn 2020, helping to prepare a new plot for the group.  What is most remarkable about them is the thing that is remarkable about most adult education groups at the centre – they love the sense of being part of their group.  They support one another and enjoy each other’s company and they have been an unbelievable example of how people grow together while being apart.

When the country went back into lockdown in the New Year, we all migrated onto Zoom.  The group met every week, struggling in the same way as most of us do with the technology involved.  People helped each other to connect to Zoom, giving instructions over the phone or miming directions through closed windows and doors.  The tutor delivered compost to those who couldn’t leave their homes.    Obstacles were overcome, tears were shed, laughter was medicinal, they learned from their tutor, they grew plants from seed, they took solace from the signs of a Spring which was full of hope.  And they stuck together – never giving in to how difficult it was to accept this new way of learning.  Showing the power of human connection.

It feels like we will soon come out the other side and I know that this class will come together again and laugh and learn and produce food and grow.  And they will remember the time when they supported one another, when this class on a Thursday was the thing that got them through the day.    When these classmates on Zoom were the only faces they may have seen that day.  It was more than just a class.  And they will get their hands dirty together again, having grown so much closer together when they had to stay apart.