WHEN David Cockburn nervously signed up to a gardening course he had no idea it would unlock a passion for horticulture which he now shares with others.

A wheelchair user for eight years, Mr Cockburn had a large garden at his home in Ferryhill, County Durham, which he was unable to use.

He wanted to learn how to grow his own vegetables and despite being nervous about joining a course with people he didn’t know, he signed up for the Plot to Plate course at Pioneering Care Partnership (PCP) in Newton Aycliffe.

Little did he know the 12 week course would turn into years of learning, volunteering and peer mentoring.

He has since attended numerous gardening and horticulture courses and transformed his own garden from a barren area into a thriving accessible garden with ramp, paved paths and raised beds packed with fruit, vegetables and flowers.

He is also now a PCP volunteer and supports other course attendees, some with learning or physical disabilities, and gives talks and guided visits, extolling the benefits of gardening for physical and mental health.

He has also taught himself how to set up and maintain blog, to spread the word about the community garden online.

Mr Cockburn was this week announced as Festival of Learning’s Social Impact Award Highly Commended individual, for his outstanding achievements in adult learning.

The award recognises individuals who have used learning to change their lives and been proactive ambassadors, inspiring others to embrace the benefits of learning.

He said: "I hope that with this confidence I have gained through learning that I can make a difference to other people.”

David’s mentor Liz Godfrey, learning for health coordinator at Pioneering Care Partnership, said: “He has overcome so many physical and mental barriers and is an excellent role model for anyone who wants to learn but feels unable or incapable.”

Carol Gaskarth, PCP chief executive, added: “David is an inspirational learner and a well-respected volunteer. His passion and enthusiasm for developing his own knowledge and skills whilst encouraging others to participate is admirable.

"When David first joined PCP he was worried about speaking in groups, so much so that he hoped the fire alarm would go off rather than having to introduce himself.

"Now his confidence has grown so much he delivers talks to large groups. He really has changed his outlook and has a new-found enthusiasm for social media to share his experience even wider. We are very proud of all he has achieved.”

Stephen Evans, chief executive at Learning and Work Institute, which runs the awards, said Mr Cockburn's inspirational story shows how beneficial and vital lifelong learning is for everyone.

He added: “David’s story is a powerful example of how one small step into learning can lead to a whole world of new opportunities. David has used learning to enhance his life, and how he is inspiring others to follow in his footsteps and for this, his award is richly deserved."

“Festival of Learning is all about inspirational stories of people like David that show that anyone can benefit from learning.

"Lifelong learning is vital for all of us as jobs and society change around us."

The Learning and Work Institute offers hundreds of free learning activities throughout June, via its Have a Go Month calendar online at festivaloflearning.org.uk

The website also has information about support with the costs of courses, the National Careers Service, colleges and community learning providers.