A woman who is running a social enterprise while studying for a degree has won a North West Regional Individual Learner Award.

Rachel Gilkes, 37, from Chorley, enrolled on a degree in social science at Blackburn College in 2011 to help her to return to paid work after having children.

She had done voluntary work with families of offenders, but realised that experience on its own might not be enough.

“I’d had lots of really interesting jobs, lots and lots of experience, but I was always working alongside people who were far more educated than me. You reach a point when you realise that you need to have a  bit more paperwork behind you,” she said.

“I also wanted to show my children that mums can go to school too – and hopefully inspire them.”

Learning gave her the skills and confidence to start Chutney for Change, a social enterprise that engages disadvantaged people from the community by teaching them to make chutneys and jams from surplus fruit and vegetables donated by growers, markets and retailers.

Rachel first thought of the project, which raises money for the community while helping participants gain new skills, before she started her degree.

Going back to learning has absolutely changed my life — it’s been full on, but I love it

“The local community centre ran a playgroup and a unit where older people could come and have lunch. They were about to lose their bus service and so we thought ‘what can we do to try and get that money?’” she said.

“By the time we got our act together they’d managed to reinstate the bus. I loved the idea of Chutney for Change though, but couldn’t find anyone to come along with me.”

While studying a community research project for her degree, Rachel decided to have another go at setting up the enterprise – and it won her last year’s National Student Entrepreneur of the Year Award.

Rachel said: “Going back to learning has absolutely changed my life — it’s been full on, but I love it.

“It’s opened so many doors and it’s helped me with Chutney for Change because I’ve had to stand up in front of people and talk. I feel more confident, and I’ve gained research and analytical skills.”

Rachel hopes to go on to study for a Master’s once she has completed her current course.

Unfortunately she couldn’t collect her award herself this week, as she had an exam the following day.

“The award is a really nice recognition. I’m touched by it, because there are so many other people my age, in my circumstances, doing this kind of thing.

“I think all adult learners with families deserve an award.”

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  1. Julie Holt

    I find it really inspiring that Rachel is using her enthusiasm and skills to help others. In Oldham we are keen to encourage entrepreneurship and to support individuals and groups who want to improve their abilities and their communities. We would be interested in getting in touch with Rachel to invite her to a forthcoming event to share her experiences.