City’s Sunflowers bloom with Jane’s care and attention

They might begin their lives in the dark as lonely seeds, but if you give them plenty of nurturing and encouragement and put them in the right environment, sunflowers can grow strong and tall – the pride of anyone’s garden.

So, for Jane Clemence, one of Cardiff Council’s dedicated community inclusion officers, there was only one name for her little band of individuals who found themselves at the start of the pandemic cut off from each other and their regular get-togethers – The Sunflower Club.

“We got together originally through the Hubs network across Cardiff before the pandemic,” said Jane, whose work as part of the Wellbeing Support Service includes organising activities to bring the elderly and isolated together.

“I used to run various sessions at the Rumney Partnership Hub in Llanstephan Road and at other hubs in Llanrumney, St Mellons and Llanedeyrn to keep people active and to get them out of their homes and to socialise,” she said. “Many of them were on their own, having lost their wives or husbands, and when they came to us it was a chance for them to meet others in a nice, friendly environment.”

Then, in the Spring of 2020, the first lockdown robbed them of this social lifeline.

“About a week before, I had an operation on my knee and I was housebound too,” said Jane, “so we had to think about how to keep people together – virtually, if not physically.

“I worked with Joanne Davies, one of my colleagues at the council’s Independent Living Services team, who was as determined as I was to keep people together.”

Their solution at first was to use the power of WhatsApp to keep everyone in touch with each other but when the Llanrumney Hall Trust donated 100 tablet computers to the Hub, and the council offered IT support, Jane started to run virtual exercise sessions which people could log in to.

“In 2021, as part of the Spring Wellbeing Festival, we decided to give some sunflower seeds to all attendees,” said Jane. “We encouraged everyone to plant them at home and every Thursday, via Teams, we’d compare them, measure their height and see how everyone was doing... this went on for seven months.”

With the easing of restrictions, the group – now known as the Sunflower Club – slowly re-emerged and, with the help of council funding, a grant from the Living Levels Partnership, plus £7,000 worth of plants and equipment from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) as part of its Nature on Your Doorstep programme, they convened at Rumney to put the gardening skills they’d learned in lockdown into practice.

“Rumney was the only Hub with a decent outdoor space – it was perfect for the Sunflower Club,” said Jane. “First of all, we transformed a little patio area and made it a nice place to have tea. There were six or eight at first, as people were still a bit wary of going out, but numbers grew and people started coming from all over Cardiff to join us, having heard about it from their friends.

“With the RSPB’s help, we created raised beds, a greenhouse, shelving and a water butt and they gave us a huge amount of plants and seeds to help with our projects.

“In the second lockdown we were able to meet outdoors so that didn’t stop us and now our numbers are up to about 16 regulars. Most are elderly and live on their own but some come from a local centre for people with learning disabilities, along with their support workers.

“And we don’t just look after the garden here,” said Jane. “We have regular health sessions and people come and play games, do arts and crafts or just sit and have a giggle.”

Most of the Sunflower Club are in no doubt that without the dedication of Jane and her colleagues their lives would be immeasurably worse. “I lost my wife in June last year,” said Colin Fleming, 77, a former postman from Llanedeyrn. “My grief was almost unbearable but I started coming here six months ago and it has given me a reason to get up in the morning.

“I do Tai Chi, ‘Meet up Mondays’ in Llanrumney, curling and on Tuesdays Jane leads a walk around parks and other lovely areas of the city. Without her and this club, I really don’t think I’d still be here.”

And it has transformed Jane, too. At 55, with more than 35 years at the council under her belt and with her husband already retired, she was contemplating giving up work herself before the pandemic. “All this has absolutely changed me for the better,” she said. “It’s been quite humbling to see the journey that all these people have been on and how we’ve been a part of it. It’s made me fall in love with my job all over again and I can’t wait to get to work.”