An avid gardener who wanted a new challenge when her two children flew the nest is in line for a national award for her work with young adults with autism.

Lesley O’Neill, from Caeriw, Pembroke, took up the role of garden tutor with Orbis Care-owned Bangeston Hall, which offers residential support for adults with autism, five years ago and has turned a lifelong hobby into her dream job.

She has just been shortlisted as a finalist at the prestigious 2018 Wales Care Awards, which aims to reward outstanding work in the social care sector.

Lesley has been nominated in the category for Promoting Fulfilled Lives, sponsored by Boots Healthcare, and will attend the glittering ceremony at the City Hall in Cardiff on October 19.

It is set to be extra special event as it also marks the Wales Care Awards’ 15th anniversary, and the 25th anniversary of organisers, Care Forum Wales.

With her own garden and vegetable patch at home, Lesley decided to return to college to study horticulture, when son Jordan, now 27, and daughter Martha, now 25, left home to go to university. After a short spell working in a garden centre, Lesley joined the Bangeston Hall team and has now cultivated a whole new career.

Situated in seven acres of land in Pembroke Dock, on the edge of the National Park, Bangeston Hall supports adults with complex needs associated with autism.

Working with her fellow Bangeston Hall gardener Gareth Lloyd, Lesley has created a stunning walled garden that has become an outdoor haven for residents where they can get back to nature and help produce vegetables for the hall’s own kitchen. The team has also introduced livestock, including pigs and chickens, and a large polytunnel to keep the residents active and engaged.

“Gardening is a sensory, stimulating activity and a great way to engage with nature and has a real calming effect on our residents, particularly when their lives feel hectic,” said Lesley.

“It’s not all about digging, some like to mix compost or fill pots. We have one young man who likes to sit and watch the chickens and that is great, it chills him out and it is a big part of his day.

“Our garden really is a safe haven, but have to work hard to get something back. And I also get so much out of it, every day is different and there is a wonderful sense of achievement when you see someone progress and achieve. It is a real team effort and I think this nomination is for all of us.”

Lesley was put forward for the award by centre manager Naomi Wolverson, for her ‘selfless efforts’ to ensure all the residents have fulfilling days and for coming up with new ideas to prevent boredom.

“The garden provides a daily structure for most of the service users in the Pembrokeshire part of Orbis Care and Lesley’s work and effort is outstanding,” Naomi added.

As well as the day-to-day maintenance of the gardens and the daily sessions with the residents, Lesley has also worked to connect the group with their local community.

The residents enter their gardening produce into the Lamphey Show every year and also sell products at the local Christmas market. Lesley came up with the idea of the group making decorative Christmas trees from drift wood, which they sold at the market and raised a phenomenal £900 in the process.

There are plans to do the same this year, which Lesley hopes will raise enough money for a tee-pee, so they can also run some bush-craft sessions for the residents.

Lesley said the challenge of finding new ways for the garden to keep the residents engaged was deeply rewarding.

“Each day is so different and to be able to work with someone and see them produce an item or plant a seed and watch it grow is wonderful.

“I feel really honoured to have been nominated as this job is a combination of everything I wanted to do, and I love it, although I don’t get as much time to spend in my own garden these days!”

Mario Kreft MBE, the Chair of Care Forum Wales, said the Wales Care Awards had gone from strength to strength.

He said: “This year’s ceremony is an even more special occasion because it marks the 15th anniversary of the Wales Care Awards and the 25th anniversary of Care Forum Wales and the event is now firmly established as one of the highlights in the Welsh social care calendar.

“The aim is to recognise the unstinting and often remarkable dedication of our unsung heroes and heroines across Wales.

“The care sector is full of wonderful people because it’s not just a job it’s a vocation – these are the people who really do have the X Factor.

“If you don’t recognise the people who do the caring you will never provide the standards that people need and never recognise the value of the people who need the care in society.

“We need to do all we can to raise the profile of the care sector workforce – they deserve to be lauded and applauded.”