A Penwortham woman who has lost family and friends to cancer in a tragic few years has opened up about how her grief has been poured into creating something positive.Advertisement
We went to meet Afka Ray who has experienced heartache and now runs the Guardians of Nature Community Interest Company.
Afka is the founder of ‘Guardians of Nature CIC’, a nature-based therapeutic horticulture project she began in 2022. She was given the honour of looking after woodlands in Penwortham alongside South Ribble Borough Council.
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Her plans to provide an outlet for people who have similar experiences around their mental health are well on their way of becoming a success.
The smile she possesses is hard-earned. Throughout the last few years, the 48-year-old dealt has been struck with several bereavements.
Her desperate wish to find peace and her journey towards nature began after the most recent loss of her foster daughter, Ellise Sambora, who took her own life in 2019.
It all started with Afka’s move to Essex from Edinburgh in 2008.
Afka realised shortly after that she was pregnant with her son Zion. The fear of becoming a mother quickly faded with a newfound friendship in a ‘beautiful and inspiring’ woman named Lorna.
They became inseparable. Both single mothers found support in each other with raising their young children.
Things improved when Afka’s mother also moved to Essex in 2011 to support her with raising her child. However, Afka’s mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly after her move and died three months later.
“My soul felt destroyed. I continued for my young son and with the support of my friends and my work, I got through the worst of it,” she wrote in a short story about how her programme, Guardians of Nature, started.
Lorna, her best friend, who had previously recovered from breast cancer, had been diagnosed with stage four cancer, given a year to live. Lorna’s battle with cancer lasted two years and in 2015, she too passed away.
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“I pledged that I would look after her daughter if anything happened,” said Afka.
Life didn’t stop there. Lorna’s mother, Barbra stepped in to help and become a second mother to Afka.
To continue supporting Lorna’s daughter Ellise, the pair settled with their losses and came together as a family.
Three years later they were once again struck by cancer. Barbra had also been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and chemotherapy had taken over her life, leaving her unable to take care of Ellise.
Perceived lack of support from social services and the constant moving around through social care, as well as the impending loss of her grandmother, meant Ellise had no stability.
Afka applied to become Ellise’s foster mother, but during the proceedings, Ellise fell into a dark place.
“Previous to this, Ellise had begun self-harming, we found lots of disturbing things she was looking at, I knew she needed help and I tried to reach out to get her the support she needed,” Afka says.
During this time, Ellise stayed at her grandmother’s home while Afka visited her friend, now partner, Jeff Cartwright, who she had recently reconnected with.
Despite having taken precautions at Barbra’s home before leaving, Afka received a call a few days later. Ellise had taken her own life at the age of 13.
“I’d known her since she was a baby, she was my only connection to my best friend… she was like a daughter to me, so I just broke down.” Afka says.
Daniel Gregory, a senior mental health practitioner, said often people need to be guided into more practical and positive ways of coping with depression.
He said: “The consequences of not having a coping mechanism are dangerous, on the outset it’s like walking around blindly in the dark when there are pits all over the place and exploration of self-harm is an example of that,” he adds.
Going back home to a life without Ellise was no longer an option for Akfa. She prayed for love, friendship and a home for her son Zion.
After bidding on several houses across Lancashire, she was overjoyed to find that the home she had finally been offered was a three minute walk from a tree she believed was her wishing tree.
Having moved to Penwortham to get away from it all and finding nature as a result, she says her connection with the earth found new bounds.
Afka continued to stay in touch with Barbra, an avid gardener, during this time who also lost her life to cancer in 2021.
“I was in that level of grief; the tree became my best friend really because I didn’t know anyone else.” said Afka.
Jeff Cartwright, project manager at Guardians of Nature who is also a carer for his father, said the programme also serves him because he had dealt with a lot of problems in his life. He takes an active part in helping Afka with the project by teaching basic construction to volunteers.
“During lockdown, I was quiet, in a low place, a dark place and this has helped me personally, but I also think society needs this because there’s a big divide.”
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Guardians of Nature, fell into its name bit by bit, one loss, one trauma at a time and is now helping many with theirs.
“Afka realised she wanted to support people and volunteered at several nature based organisations. She wanted to help people that’s how she started Guardians of Nature,” Jeff said.
Some of the volunteers at Guardians of Nature tell me about their experiences and how the programme is helping them.
Vicki H experienced bullying through high school and said the programme helps with her mental health.
She was a part of the programme before it found its name. Learning new skills is a healthy outlet that Vicki has embraced wholeheartedly.
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“I guess part of what Afka is doing is quite unique as well, in other places you have time limits… but we can be here and there’s no rush, it’s a place to come and heal,” said Vicki.
James Campbell was one of the first members of join the Guardians of Nature.
James, 28, got involved with Guardians of Nature through mental health and says it helped with his confidence and inspired him to go to college to study Horticulture.
Afka hopes that Guardians of Nature can be a place for people to feel at home when there’s no other way to heal.
“Grief is love with nowhere to go… every time I missed giving my love, all the times I thought I missed someone, I planted, and one day I turned around, I was surrounded by this beautiful garden, and I realised how much beauty I created from such sadness,” she says.
“You just have to find somewhere to put that love, the love is always going to be there so just find somewhere to put it, somewhere positive.”
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