Parkstone United Reformed Church is a hive of activity.

In a small lounge area, a couple of men have come in from the cold for a coffee and a chat, while outside, others are hard at work tending plants in a polytunnel and another group digs the earth to prepare it for a new pathway.

As I'm taken on a tour of the site, other work already completed is pointed out to me, including the repairing of walls, stripping of floors and refurbishment of toilets.

Yet more jobs are planned, such as the creation of a community cafe and a training kitchen.

This work is being completed not by a team of professional tradespeople, but by a group ex-offenders and vulnerable members of the community who are trying to turn their lives around with the help of the Life Works scheme.

The initiative is part of the Footprints Project, which mentors men and women leaving prison or starting a community sentence and returning to Dorset, Somerset and Hampshire, aiming to reduce the risk of re-offending by helping clients to re-integrate into their local community.

Life Works, which is based at the church in Commercial Road, was started purely by accident, when Footprints pastoral co-ordinator Mark Phillips asked a couple of clients for help moving a polytunnel which was donated to the church.

"We needed bodies to shift it," he says.

"I asked people to give us a hand - two people did and they said 'could we do more of this?' So right from the beginning it's been led by the lads.

"It just attracted people - we are over 100 volunteers and 10,000 hours in three and a half years."

While the scheme was initially set up for Footprints clients, it has now broadened to welcome vulnerable people in the community who need structure to their day, and works as a stepping stone for those looking to get back into work.

As well as undertaking maintenance work around the church, Life Works volunteers - who have to apply for a place, just like a volunteer with any other organisation - also take on building and decorating projects off-site, for local community groups, for a small fee.

Life Works has been running since June 2013, but entered into a partnership with the church at the end of 2015 and took on its own manager in April this year as the initiative gained momentum.

"It's grown into a small community," says manager Darren Hayward.

"We work with probation, so people that have been given community service are placed here because of the nature of the project and because of their offences.

"Some of our volunteers are looking to get into work, some of them may be signed off but want some structure to their day.

"Some of them want to go to the construction industry, so we might get them work placements. They learn some basic skills, build friendships and we have a pastoral co-ordinator who does mentoring with them."

Life Works currently has up to 20 volunteers - who receive benefits such as travel expenses and a small wage for outside work - on site at any one time. Members stay on for an average of six weeks, working anything from one day a week to five or six days, although some have stayed for as long as two years, and others will dip in and out of the project between paid work contracts.

The team are now hoping to expand the range of opportunities available, and are looking to create a training kitchen and take on some specialised tutors, as well as increase the number of retired tradesmen who currently volunteer their teaching.

"The ethos is, it's led from the bottom up, so it's quite nice to have some of the longer volunteers," explains Mark.

"We would like to get more people involved - we would love to have 50 involved at any one time. That means we have a number of sites, growing what we can offer, but still keeping that sense of community - relationships and learning and living are the things that keep us sane.

"It would be lovely to set something up around a social enterprise for them to earn some income. The important thing is to keep work going. We can't say 'see you in a month'."

Footprints chief executive Jane Barkes says there is a growing need for the opportunity to work and learn a skill.

"We've got people that are wanting to do this work because they want to learn a skill or they want something positive to do.

"They want to gain in confidence or self-esteem, some of them want to move onto work. A lot of them are in supported housing, so it keeps them busy, helps them to remain clean.

"It's a reason to get out of bed in the morning."

To find out more about the Life Works project, call Darren Hayward on 07464 549133, email or visit

  • Footprints and YMCA (Bournemouth) are hosting a Carol Concert with the High Sherrif of Dorset, Sir Philip Williams, His Honour Judge Peter Johnson and Kate Adie at St Peter's Church in Hinton Road, Bournemouth, at 7pm on Thursday, December 8.

Seats are £15 in advance, £20 after December 1 and on the door, to include drinks and canapés from 6pm. To find out more, or book tickets, visit