FEATURE: Sudbury charity Eden-Rose Coppice Trust born out of tragedy to help those most in need
Rob Brooks was determined to provide a tranquil retreat for patients diagnosed with a terminal illness.
His wife, Rosemary, lost her battle with lung cancer, aged 50, in 2006.
During her treatment, the couple were shocked to hear of the hardship that some patients coping with life-threatening diseases had faced.
Among the devastating stories was the plight of a man diagnosed with lung cancer, who, having been forced to give up work as a plasterer, was made homeless.
Keen to provide a safe haven for visitors to recuperate, Mr Brooks founded the Eden-Rose Coppice Trust in 2007.
“I set up the charity because I met people who weren’t as lucky as us,” he says.
In order to fund the cost of setting up the ambitious project, Mr Brooks sold his home in Sudbury and rented a house in Lamarsh, before buying a barge in Ipswich to live on.
“I did well in life – I had everything I needed, so I wanted to give something back,” he says.
Based in a woodland setting, the initiative enables users to connect with nature, while taking part in various activities.
The project, which operates five sites across Suffolk and Essex, including its Sudbury base near The Granary, provides volunteering opportunities, while supporting cancer patients, those living with terminal illnesses, the elderly and people with learning difficulties and mental health conditions.
The idea of a woodland retreat was inspired by the therapeutic gardens at West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St Edmunds, which Mr Brooks regularly visited while Rosemary received treatment.
“I noticed how it was really calming,” he says. “I met one of the consultants who said the only way he could relax was by visiting the garden, so I thought ‘Let’s take that a stage further’.
“I did a lot of research into the effects of the outdoors on people – there’s so much clinical evidence on how woodlands affect us and how being outside can boost our endorphins.”
Trees have been proven to provide health benefits, including relieving stress by emitting phytoncide – a substance they produce to protect themselves from harmful insects and germs – into the atmosphere.
The tranquil setting of the woodlands provides comfort for palliative care patients, while providing them with the freedom to express themselves.
One visitor, who was diagnosed with breast cancer, planted 970 bluebells, which her son and father regularly visit.
Community volunteers play a vital role at the charity by helping to restore, transform and maintain the woodland sites for members to visit with family, friends or carers.
Due to the health benefits of working in a natural environment, some individuals are referred to the trust through the NHS as part of their rehabilitation.
The charity works closely with hospices and receives referrals of unemployed individuals, or those seeking work placements.
Through voluntary work, individuals acquire experience, while forming friendships and achieving a sense of pride by contributing to a worthy cause.
“They can develop skills, which they may not be able to do at home, and become a part of a social group,” says Mr Brooks.
The role enables volunteers to expand their knowledge of nature and biodiversity.
Mr Brooks said the positive impact of spending time in the woodlands is visible.
“There’s a marked improvement in their physical wellbeing,” he says.
A large number of the volunteers are elderly and benefit from the regular social interaction and stimulating activities.
A recent group task involved constructing a hazel panel fence around a pond.
“Loneliness is nearly as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” says Mr Brooks. “It’s a really bad problem.”
In recognition of his service to the community, Mr Brooks received an honorary doctorate from the University of Suffolk.
Working closely with the university, the charity enables students studying a degree in wildlife, ecology and conservation science to gain further knowledge by visiting one of its woodland sites.
Mr Brooks’ youngest daughter, Jo, who runs the charity while managing the Ipswich site, obtained a degree in English and history.
“Jo has always loved the outdoors and I’m glad she’s done as well as she has,” he says.
Thanks to Jo’s active role at the charity, Mr Brooks is confident about the trust’s future. “I know this will go on for some time,” he says.
Mr Brooks’ other daughters, Phillipa and Sarah, also help out at large charity events.
His 17-year-old granddaughter, Eve Brooks-Parkin, who supports young people with learning difficulties through voluntary work at the charity, was awarded The Diana Award – established in memory of Diana, Princess of Wales – last year, in recognition of her humanitarian work.