Sometimes you visit some people, who really are so good and wonderful that it shames you a bit. The people at Jennyruth Workshops are some of those unsung heroes that underpin every society in the world; they just get on with it, doing good work, day in day out and neither expect nor want any huge praise. About a fortnight ago, I had been driving through Ripon as I do almost every day, but this time I had my eyes open when I stopped at the traffic lights on North Street and there was a display in one of the windows about Jennyruth Workshops and I thought I wonder whether they could craft us some spice racks. So I arranged to meet with them and wow were they lovely, amazing people.
Jennyruth Workshops is a wood and metal craft workshop that provides people with disabilities the opportunities and skills to make things for sale. Currently, there are about 16 colleagues with disabilities and 30 carers, most of whom give a little time here and there, but some are more permanent like Mark, one of the permanent helpers, who showed us around yesterday with Jonathan, one of the disabled workers, who has been there since the start as his father founded the place. Jennyruth Workshops is based at Red Farm on the Newby Hall Estate in a large building that looks nondescript on the outside, but has been well built and finished inside with help from prisoners and soldiers. Although Jennyruth Workshops has been around for some time, having been founded about 15 years ago by Jonathan’s father, it was opened in this new complex in 2004 by the Countess of Wessex.
At Jennyruth, they make all sorts of items from bird and bat boxes through to meditation stools, as well as rainbow crosses and wooden clocks; they also make cards and sew products including some brilliant shopping bags from empty, hessian coffee bags donated by Betty & Taylors in Harrogate, who are big supporters of theirs. They also do a lot of one-off items, for example there was a wooden sign for a toy library in Sharow in progress that was shaped as a giant teddy bear with each letter for “Borrowers Toy Library” being individually cut out and painted. And Jonathan proudly showed us a farm that he had made with buildings and animals all cut from wood, pieced together and painted; I was awed by Jonathan’s pride, skill and enthusiasm for what is being done at Jennyruth Workshops. Yesterday, there were also 2 teenage boys from The Forest School in Knaresborough (another amazing place) who were working on a week’s work experience and were busy screwing in the hinges on the kneeling-style meditation stool.
What I love about the concept of what is being done at Jennyruth and many other similar places is they are trying to ensure that all the disabled workers get involved with every stage in the process from the cutting, through to the piecing together, the painting and varnishing, the packing up and dispatching, so there is no Smith-style division of labour. It is, therefore, a fun and meaningful place to work.
I was humbled by them all and hang my head in shame that I never help enough, getting so wrapped up in our own relatively mundane and small problems of the daily grind.
What Sophie and I would like to do is start by selling a few of their items on the Steenbergs web site, such as bird and bat boxes and perhaps meditation stools and hopefully spice racks. We would simply sell them at Jennyruth’s retail price, so making not a penny on these ourselves, and see what happens. If it becomes popular, then we may add a few extra items, but more importantly we would seek to widen the circle of other great places that also work with people with disabilities and bring their products to our customers on the same “no profit for Steenbergs basis”, since we are all concerned that customers are aware that making such products takes time and that neither Jennyruth Workshops nor places like Botton Village up at Danby are factories but wondrous, traditional crafting places for people with disabilities who should be treated respectfully.
I think it is sad that we as a culture are great at buying ethnic products from the developing world that are fairly traded, but that there is not such a great network for selling products made by people in our own country whether with learning disabilities or just trying to get started and out of a poverty trap. As they say, charity starts at home, so let’s see if we can develop this more.
What do others think?