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Shining example as Fife charity The Sunshine Kitchen expands into additional support needs gardening

Mick Kitson (session lead), Jack Doyle, Vicky Wotherspoon, Fiona McIlrath (session support), Innes Carnegie, Patrick, and Sean Williamson.
Mick Kitson (session lead), Jack Doyle, Vicky Wotherspoon, Fiona McIlrath (session support), Innes Carnegie, Patrick, and Sean Williamson.

Michael Alexander meets members of The Sunshine Kitchen who have launched a new gardening project to improve life and employability skills for participants.

The sun is beating down at Craigtoun Park, near St Andrews, as young adults with additional support needs get back to work after a well-earned water break in the shade.

There’s vegetables to be planted and picnic tables to be fixed.

But what’s evident amongst all of the young adults taking part is the sense of purpose, sense of humour and the pride everyone is taking in the development of their vegetable garden.

Innes Carnegie.

Welcome to The Sunshine Kitchen garden project, which has been running at Craigtoun for around seven weeks.

What is The Sunshine Kitchen?

Since being established in Cupar in 2018, The Sunshine Kitchen has been running a kitchen project in Fife for young adults with additional needs.

Opportunities are provided for members to be part of a supportive working environment, gaining confidence and learning as part of a team.

As voluntary attendees, they have the opportunity to learn how to make and market food products and to gain fun and rewarding experiences as part of a working team.

Now, a new gardening initiative has been launched by The Sunshine Kitchen, which provides further opportunities to gain confidence and develop employability skills.

Patrick at The Sunshine Kitchen garden project.

Thanks to a partnership with Friends of Craigtoun Park, a dedicated garden and greenhouse space is providing The Sunshine Kitchen team with the capability to grow its own produce, which team members will then use to make food products in their kitchen sessions.

The focus of the new garden project is on growing seasonal produce, and teaching the skills involved in doing so.

Generous support

Project manager Gayle Nelson, whose son Laurie is part of the team, says they are “so excited” to see this meaningful project come to fruition thanks to the generous support received from Friends of Craigtoun Park and their funders.

“This is a natural next step for The Sunshine Kitchen, as our emphasis has always been on using local and seasonal produce in the development of our food products,” she says, adding that they got some funding towards launching the garden from the Bank of Scotland REACH Foundation and also from the Trefoil Foundation.

Mick Kitson (session lead), Jack Doyle, Vicky Wotherspoon, Fiona McIlrath (session support), Innes Carnegie, Patrick and Sean Williamson

“Now we are able to grow our own, and incorporate this into the development of skills for our young people.

“The team will learn to sow plants from seed, maintain and harvest vegetables and fruit, and gain a thorough understanding of the annual growing cycle and what their produce can be used for in their kitchen.”

Who are the participants?

It’s an un-seasonally scorching day when The Courier visits.

Seven young adults with mixed abilities are in attendance, aged in their 20s and early 30s.

They include Sean Williamson, 23, from Glenrothes, who tells The Courier he has been planting strawberries, potatoes, pumpkins and spring leeks.

Sean Williamson.

With little previous experience of gardening, he explains how much he enjoys being outside and using his hands.

Victoria Wotherspoon, 30, from Finglassie, Glenrothes, also explains how she’s been doing “lots of things”.

She explains how she looks after two big hens in her garden at home. They lay two eggs per day.

However, she admits she doesn’t do much gardening otherwise and says her experiences with The Sunshine Kitchen garden mean she will “probably do more”.

Other participants include Sophie who is helping fix a picnic table bench, along with Patrick who tells me: “It’s hard work”!

Vicky Wotherspoon

Jack, with a reputation for being a “real grafter”, is also helping fix the bench.

Overseeing the project

The day’s efforts are being overseen by Mick Kitson, session lead for The Sunshine Kitchen garden.

The former St Leonard’s School and Dundee High School English teacher, who gave up teaching when his critically acclaimed 2018 debut novel Sal won the Saltire Society First Book of the Year Award, explains that the young adults visit the garden once a week and stay for around five hours.

Since launching seven weeks ago, they’ve turned what was a gravelled part of the park into an area with raised beds, now filled and planted out with vegetables.

“The idea is that it’s like a job,” says Mick.

“It’s like a day’s work. We treat it like that. They have to be here on time, they have to wear uniform, they have to behave!

Fife-based writer Mick Kitson has won the 2018 Saltire First Book Award for his debut novel, Sal.

“But they are learning all the time.”

Mick, who says he’s at an age where he “doesn’t really want to work too much”, got involved after replying to a job advert.

He was “really excited” about it because he loves gardening, loves growing vegetables and flowers, and “really loves working with these guys as well”.

Mick explains that the Friends of Craigtoun Park created the space for the group and a local farmer donated the raised beds.

They’ve also got a greenhouse they can use.

An eco-friendly ethos means they are trying to make the garden organic and peat free.

Jack Doyle & Mick Kitson (session lead) making a table.

They are trying not to use plastic as much as possible and use no pesticides or weed killers whatsoever.

“So far really lots of it has just been planting out new stuff,” he says.

“We’ve got herbs, beans, strawberries, sweetcorn,” he says, “and we’ve got pumpkins, courgettes, carrots.

“We had a bit of a disaster with the carrots – they got burned up in the sun!

“We’ve got a mushroom bed over there. Hopefully by October/November we’ll have mushrooms.

“But actually in terms of major crops, it won’t really be until next year.

Mick Kitson (session lead) & Patrick.

“We also have these compost heaps. We are just in the process of building these.

We’ve got a three bay composting system. We want it to be as eco-friendly as possible really.”

‘Like a proper employer’

Mick says a key aspect of The Sunshine Kitchen is that while it’s a charity, it’s “run like a proper employer”.

Team members have to apply to come and work, and if a trial succeeds, they are allowed to stay.

“That’s Gayle Nelson’s doing,” he adds.

“She’s great. She runs the whole thing.

“There’s good sort of professionalism about it which is really good because it means they get used to being in that kind of environment where they have to turn up on time, they have to do the work and all that kind of stuff.”

Gayle Nelson

Mick says in the relatively short while the project has been running, he’s seen participants “really come out of themselves”.

Some of them have suddenly found they really like doing certain things.

The boys, for example, just love putting together benches and screwing things together.

They put their backs into moving barrow loads of muck to fill the raised beds.

“They seem to really enjoy it – they are all really enthusiastic,” he adds.

‘Grafters’, says session support Fiona

It’s a work ethic vouched for by fellow staff member and session support worker Fiona McIlrath, originally from Dundee and now of Leuchars.

“They seem really fulfilled from doing a hard day’s work,” says the 30-year-old who comes from a horticultural background, and also helps with the catering side of The Sunshine Kitchen.

“They enjoy being involved in a practical task.

“I think there’s a sense of fulfilment in seeing something they’ve planted grow.

“The excitement of coming back and finding berries on the strawberries they’ve planted out.

“Also they enjoy working together as well as a team. They become friends.

“I think for them seeing their confidence rise and when they come to use the produce in the kitchen as well – that’ll be a good feeling for them knowing they grew a courgette and knowing it’s going in their quiche!”


Having done some work as a nanny, including care for a boy with autism, Fiona admits she was a “bit daunted” by the mixed abilities of the team when she first started.

Innes Carnegie.

Some have different tolerances and different communication levels.

One young man, for example, is deaf and will only use sign language to someone who is fluent.

Having been initially drawn to the job because of the horticultural angle, however, she’s surprised herself how much she enjoys working with the young adults too.

“I would do anything with them now,” she smiles.

“The gardening is neither here nor there. That’s been the best part. I don’t want to sound patronising that they are sweet or endearing, but they really are.

“It makes my day. If you come here in a bad mood, you’ll never leave in a bad mood.

Mick Kitson (session lead), Jack Doyle, Vicky Wotherspoon, Fiona McIlrath (session support), Innes Carnegie, Patrick, and Sean Williamson.

“How they interact with each other and how they’ve come out of their shell is so rewarding.

“Sometimes you’ll only get a one word answer.

“Then at lunchtime one day someone will say four or five words to you.

“That’s such a big thing!”

Doug Stephen, speaking on behalf of Friends of Craigtoun Park, adds: “We are delighted to support The Sunshine Kitchen in this very worthwhile initiative, providing these young people with the opportunity to work outdoors and learn everything there is to know about gardening.

“Friends of Craigtoun Park are here to support the community in benefitting from everything the park has to offer.”

To find out more about The Sunshine Kitchen go to

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