Wood Monkey Workshop: Where confidence is learned alongside carpentry in Rougham
When he was furloughed at the start of the pandemic, Keith Colley, of Rougham, started to think more seriously about an idea he had been forming for years.
Keith, 43, had a long-held desire to ‘do something’ for disadvantaged and troubled youngsters who were not within mainstream education.
Having spent years in alternative provision himself, Keith said he always felt there should be more opportunity for hard to reach or disadvantaged children.
“I had a bit of a tough time and spent time living with my aunt and uncle in Essex.
“My uncle did a bit of carpentry, I really enjoyed that. It felt like a great space to go and get some breathing space,” said Keith.
“I get personal enjoyment from carpentry and I believe there are a lot of mental health benefits to working with your hands.”
Six months into the pandemic, Keith thought ‘I’m going to just do it’ and in September set up Wood Monkey Workshop in his large garage.
The workshop offers sessions where youngsters can learn basic carpentry skills using vintage hand tools, starting with a taster session and progressing to a series of sessions working on longer projects.
“It’s always been in my mind to do something like this. I’m an excluded child – from 13 I was in what they now call a pupil referral unit. I had an hour of education a day for the last three years of school. It struck me that was a bit rubbish,” said Keith.
“Furlough gave me the opportunity to do something on a very small scale. I thought ‘I’ve got time and a garage’.
“I thought ‘If you get one person in and they like it, it will be a success and I’ll be happy’. We’ve since had about 11 youngsters through our doors.”
Keith put some money towards the start-up costs of converting his garage space and buying tools, while other funds came through a crowdfunding campaign.
“I’ve had a huge amount of support from friends, family and the community. The support has just been amazing – from donating tools to advice,” said Keith.
“I am 43 and just starting to have the confidence I didn’t have before in asking for help.”
Youngsters from The Albany, in Bury St Edmunds, are among those who have spent time at the workshop.
“After a few weeks here they start to tell me about what issues they are going through. I don’t say much, I try to create an environment where they feel free to talk openly. I am not a teacher or counsellor, I am a guy who might understand a bit where they are coming from,” said Keith.
“Their school has reported back that they are seeing some improvements in some of the guys who are coming in regards to their attitudes to the future. That is a big deal. These guys do have a future and we want them to see that.
“They do all the work, we just create the environment.
“Although they might not have the skills to go into mainstream education – they may not be excelling in that environment – these kids have other skills. They have resilience and they have determination – what they show is the resilience of a 40-year-old. There is value in their skills and we try to help them see that.”
Everyone who goes to the workshop starts by making a box which they can customise how they wish.
The box project teaches some basic skills.
Then, youngsters can choose their next project.
“It’s about making something they have an interest in, using some basic skills so they can achieve something of quality. We want them to be able to look at it and think ‘that’s good’,” said Keith.
“We do a lot of garden stuff, we’ve made owl boxes and we are making benches and signs for 10 Acre Wood, on Moreton Hall, for example. We also have a retail arm where we sell some products – such as garden planters, bird boxes and hedgehog houses – to raise money to help us buy tools and materials and to keep the workshop going.”
Keith said he left school aged 16 with no qualifications, help or guidance – an experience which has shaped his own life.
“I went through the local paper and circled the jobs I thought might have me. I fell into sales and have done it ever since,” said Keith.
“I fundamentally believe that even though kids might be excluded (from mainstream education) they deserve more than they get. My aim is for them to come to us and build confidence.
“I want those guys to be aware that they are capable of more than they think and that they are able to pursue what they want to pursue, rather than what they have to.
“Wood Monkey Workshop is about improving quality of life. These guys deserve to have the same opportunities as someone in a mainstream school.
“We want to get them to a point where they can seek out those opportunities and grab them when they come along.”