River Garden at Auchincruive

The residential rehabilitation programme with a strong sense of community

by Gill Sherry

I’d never actually heard of River Garden at Auchincruive. Which made me wonder how many other people in Ayrshire were also unaware of its existence.

First and foremost, it’s an IFDAS (Independence from Drugs and Alcohol Scotland) charity that helps people to leave their addiction problems behind and build a new life full of positivity and promise.

But it’s also a place where members of the public are made very welcome. They can enjoy the extensive gardens, take a walk along the River Ayr, or sample one of the many delicious offerings in The Bothy Café.

When I arrive, I can’t help but notice the construction work that is taking place on site, just off the B743 between Ayr and Mossblown.

“We received funding from the Hunter Foundation, Scottish Government and various other sources to build up the residential capacity,” General Manager, Rosemary White, tells me. “That will increase the number of residents who can come here. Eventually we should have 56.”

First opened in 2018, it is based on the successful San Patrignano (Sanpa for short) model in Italy, a residential programme designed to rehabilitate those affected by alcohol or drug addiction.

“It very much grew from there,” says Rosemary. “We’ve taken parts of Sanpa and shaped it because it’s a completely different culture here. We’ve retained the social enterprise and community part of it.”

Its growth has much to do with the profits generated by the café which are ploughed back into the charity. But whilst the café is the main source of income, it also plays an important part in the rehabilitation of residents.

“They work in the café,” Rosemary confirms. “We also have staff who have come through the recovery process and are now employees.”

But employment opportunities are not limited to the café. Some residents will work in the garden or the kitchen. They may help to plan and organise one of the charity’s numerous fundraising events, or assist in an admin capacity.

“It’s a community. We all work together, it’s all hands on deck. The residents are very pro-active and understanding. They have a great work ethic.”

I’m introduced to Ross, himself a resident at River Garden and very much an advocate of the programme.

“I went through the programme in Italy,” he tells me. “I’d tried rehab programmes before but in Scotland the standard rehab programme is a couple of months, it just isn’t enough time to change. They get you off the drugs but you’re left with all the trauma. I realised that a couple of months wasn’t going to cut it. I’d been using drugs for years so I knew it would take years to undo all of those behaviours and thoughts.”

Fortunately for Ross, a family member lived in Italy and helped him apply for a place at Sanpa He was put in touch with a man named Danny McCubbin who was a volunteer at Sanpa and who helped Ross to enter the programme.

“You had to be alcohol and drug free to go there,” Ross continues. “It’s not like a detox centre, it’s the harder bit. You’ve got to make that commitment to get yourself off the drugs.”

It was indeed a difficult period for Ross, particularly as he didn’t speak Italian. But the residential programme helped him to succeed where previous detox attempts had failed.

Ross is now a sessional worker at River Garden and speaks highly of the place he now calls home. He’s also full of admiration for its founder.

“The guy who founded River Garden, Mark Bitel, he took a trip over to see Sanpa and fell in love with the place and the programme. He’s in recovery himself. He brought it back to Scotland.”

The success of the programme speaks for itself. For Ross, and many others, it doesn’t just encourage them to live a life without drugs or alcohol, it goes much further than that, as Rosemary explains: “Their confidence, self-esteem and self-advocacy has increased to the point whereby they feel they have a voice. That voice has been silenced before. They didn’t think they had the right to speak nor the ability to express themselves.”

Currently, the programme is only available for male residents, however, the charity will soon be able to accept female applicants too.

“We’ll soon be able to accommodate eight women in a small gardener’s cottage that has been renovated,” Rosemary informs me, “so they’ll have their own accommodation.”

Rosemary believes that, traditionally, women have not been very good at asking for help. Coupled with the fact that help and services were very male orientated, this restricted the number of women seeking assistance.

“Women have increased in numbers in coming through to alcohol and drug services for help, and also through residential rehab. The stigma has been broken down over the years.”

Being able to accept women at River Garden is an exciting prospect for Rosemary. As is the new woodworking workshop which is almost complete. Not only will the charity be able to sell the items produced, but residents will also learn a new skill.

Volunteer, Alan Gorman, tells me more: “The prime objective of the wood shop is that it becomes a thriving social enterprise… that it pays for itself and contributes to the charity’s running costs.”

Alan has been volunteering at River Garden for 18 months and has nothing but praise for the programme and those involved.

“It’s one of the most rewarding projects that I have been involved with. Because of the residents, the model, the community feeling, the family that they describe themselves as, I became immersed. It’s rewarding. I’ve got a talent and a skill and it’s now time for me to give something back to a rewarding situation. And River Garden is that. They’ll have a skill that they didn’t have before, and if there’s any golden nuggets amongst the residents, we’d actually push them through college as well.”

Rosemary agrees: “All of this is pivotal to our ongoing success. That’s why volunteers are the backbone of the charity, along with the residents… and as we grow, we will have more capacity to do much bigger things as we go along.”

On the subject of college, Rosemary adds: “Ayr College has been absolutely fantastic with us. All the residents now have their own laptops on loan so they have study sessions. We’re trying to nurture a number of elements because they’ve all got different skills, it’s amazing to see that come to the fore. We have residents who are proficient artists… and some of them have worked before in busy organisations so they have organisational skills and leadership qualities. They function as a team better than some places that I’ve worked!”

Although she is still fairly new to the role, it’s clear Rosemary is passionate about the project and fully committed to its continued success.

“It’s amazing to watch them. They are very supportive of each other… they will always work through any issues that they have in a way that I think is quite unusual. In the evening they can go down and have a wee swim in the river, it’s great to see them enjoying life without alcohol or drugs.”

Acceptance to the programme is on a self-referral basis and begins with an online enquiry form. A questionnaire is then completed and this is followed by a day visit allowing applicants to get a feel for the place and to talk to staff and residents.

The three-year residential programme relies on fundraising and public support to continue its work. Volunteers are always welcome – regardless of how little time they can spare – be it for the garden, café or wood shop. Monetary donations can be made via the charity’s website, and support of upcoming events is appreciated. The next one sees Ken O’Hara perform his one-man play, The Price of a Fish Supper on 27th August. Tickets are £20. Keep an eye on the River Garden Auchincruive Facebook page for further details. The charity is also able to host school visits as well as corporate events.

“It’s an ongoing problem in Scotland and globally,” Rosemary concludes, “the issues it raises in terms of poverty, social exclusion and stigma. The most important thing is that we are able to come together and offer support so that when people get to that point when they are dependent on drugs or alcohol, River Garden will come into play. It provides them with a secure, safe place to continue their life.”

For more information, please send an email to enquiries@ifdas.net. In the meantime, I’d encourage you to visit The Bothy Café. It really is quite delightful (and dogs are welcome on the terrace).