Empowering young people through hen-keeping at the Huddleston Centre

Meet Clapton's newest coop at a winter market on 29 November

LADY Sarah is stepping haughtily between the music instruments, chairs and young people scattered around a Clapton community centre on a Tuesday afternoon. Although very much the guest of honour at this session for disabled young people, Lady Sarah is, you see, a chicken.

We are sitting in the Huddleston Centre, set up in 1984 to enable young disabled people and their families to take maximum control of their own lives and play a full, active role in the community.

Today, it hosts weeknight clubs and holiday play schemes, all designed to provide education and skills, recreational activities and socialising opportunities to young people aged nine to 25. And that’s where Lady Sarah comes in.

Since last year, the Huddleston Centre has been running a wholly unique partnership with the charity Equal Arts. The charity’s Co-Director, Douglas Hunter, explains: “We’re a charity that focuses on working with older people, organising activities that place them in the community.

“At the Huddleston Centre, we’re turning that model on its head as we’re focusing on younger people, but inviting older people to volunteer alongside them.”

The medium through which they are achieving this? Chickens. Equal Arts first launched their HenPower project in 2011, using hen-keeping to promote wellbeing among the elderly. It proved an overwhelming success and is now running in more than 40 care homes across the country.

A 12-month study of the project by Northumbria University found that HenPower improved the health of older people, and reduced depression. And here, at the Huddleston Centre, it is being used with young people in a community centre for the very first time.

Douglas says: “Hens are effectively a vehicle for social engagement. There are the practical skills of looking after them to learn of course but, more importantly, what it does is get people to talk to each other. It prompts questions, takes nervousness away, and makes communication more natural.”

Nou Nou Naouar, senior youth worker at the Huddleston Centre agrees. We watch a group of teens troop into the centre’s garden, where a suitably palatial chicken coup houses Lady Sarah and her friends. The teens set about sweeping up the floor, replacing the hay and replenishing feed.

“What I love about this project is the way it encourages independence and also socialisation,” she says. Adding: “Some of the behavioural problems our young people have can lead to angry outbursts. But that doesn’t happen when they are with the hens. Everything is much calmer.”

Joel, 19, says: “At first I was scared of the hens, but now, I love them.” Nicole, 20, a regular at the sessions, chips in: “These hens are lovely, they’re really tame and friendly.” Charlene, 29, picks up a freshly laid egg. “It’s still warm,” she exclaims in wonderment.

Once the coup has been spruced, it is time to head inside. HenPower sessions break into two halves. While the young people learn about hen-keeping and are responsible for the ongoing care of the centre’s hens, they also take part in weekly arts and crafts sessions with their feathered friends.

Today, professional percussionist, Ruari Glasheen, has come in to run a workshop with the teens, and with Lady Sarah, of course. The group pass a drum around, then play a clapping exercise, passing a rhythm that requires concentration from the group.

“Get involved, Lady Sarah,” laughs a boy called Alex, 20. And in a way, she does. Soon there is a dainty pile of chicken droppings on the floor. Everyone laughs, while Nou Nou grabs antibacterial spray and a cloth. Never work with children and animals, as they say. But here at the Huddleston Centre, they are proving to be perfect companions.

On 29, November, HenPower will be revealing their coop and welcoming the new arrival to their new home in their Clapton garden at the Winter Market.

Take a peek at the new hens and enjoy the music, food, mulled wine and pick up some festive presents from the stalls, all taking place at the Huddleston Centre from 12noon-6pm.

By Harriet Worsley