News. The Tamar Manoukian Outdoor Residential Centre

27th of July, 2017

With its striking terracotta roof and brightly varnished wooden walls, The Tamar Manoukian Outdoor Residential Centre is reminiscent of an elegant British colonial building: it would be as at home in the hills of Raj-era Kerala as it is in the grounds of Dumfries House. Built with the generous financial assistance of Bob and Tamar Manoukian, and with sleeping accommodation for 44 guests, it has enabled young visitors to stay over at the Estate for the first time. Sitting at one of the long wooden dining tables in the main hall today, the Centre’s manager Richard Kay awaits the arrival of Muirhead Primary School pupils from the Ayrshire coastal town of Troon.

“Throughout the week, we’ll be teaching them different skills,” he explains. “We’ll work on building their confidence, show them how to solve problems with teamwork, how to co-operate with each other, and the necessity of patience when they’re working their way around the assault course.”

The circuit, which is situated in the grounds of the Centre and was built by Timberplay, the award-winning specialist in children’s educational playground equipment, has been designed to encourage both personal and social skills, as well as present youngsters with a physical challenge.

The Centre was completed in 2015 and was initially to be the Scottish base for HRH The Duke of Rothesay’s charity, Youth United, an umbrella organisation that brings together uniformed youth groups, including the Scouts, Guides and Sea Cadets. But with these visits largely contained to the weekends, it soon became apparent that the Centre could provide facilities during the week for younger children from local schools and further afield. These days it is open throughout the year, providing residential retreats for Youth United groups, schools and – with the addition of an adjacent and impressively large gymnasium, also funded by the Manoukians – fitness facilities for all ages.

“My wife Tamar and I were particularly happy to support something that would be of benefit to young people in a less developed area of the UK,” says Bob Manoukian. “Once under way, we were even more thrilled with the speed and efficiency with which the project unfolded. To stand there less than a year later for the official opening of this new facility by His Royal Highness, accompanied by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, was incredibly thrilling. It was then that we began to appreciate His Royal Highness’s pioneering work and his vision for Dumfries House. One could not help but want to be involved in such a bold project in such a special place.”

Some of the activities show the benefits of working as a team, helping to develop personal and social skills.

Making the facilities available to Scottish youngsters could have significant benefits. Our increasingly sedentary lives and modern diets are often loaded with refined sugars and processed foods, and this has resulted in an obesity crisis; Scotland is one of the countries worst affected. A study in 2014 by ScotCen Social Research for the Scottish Government identified 65 per cent of Scots as overweight. More than 228,000 have been diagnosed with diabetes – one in 25 of the population. Of these, 87 per cent have type 2, the form primarily linked to diet and lifestyle, with 80 per cent of this group being obese.

In 2015, a report by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre estimated the cost to NHS Scotland to be £600 million a year, and to the wider economy an eye-watering £4.6 billion. In addition, a report published last year by NHS Scotland Information Services Division, found that although obesity levels have dropped overall among children from 77.1 per cent to 75.2 per cent, children from the least affluent areas are still 50 per cent more likely to be overweight than the most wealthy. Last year, the government took affirmative action and pledged that every primary school pupil in Scotland would have at least two hours a week of physical education. And in May, East Ayrshire Council announced that all pupils from all backgrounds across their schools will be entitled to a residential learning experience during their time at school.

“When it comes to global obesity levels, the UK sits not far behind the US – and Scotland’s pretty high within the UK. There’s a need to combat that early, when they’re still young,” says Kay later, as we follow the Muirhead Primary School pupils around the assault course. The children are trying to solve the ‘Hanoi Tower’, an activity requiring them to get five numbered tyres over three poles, with a lower number not sitting below a higher one. They are totally engrossed. Working together – with a little shouting and friendly disagreement – they gradually work out the solution between them. “This one is mainly about route-planning and problem-solving,” explains Kay. “It’s a bit of a brainteaser and challenges them mentally, as well as physically, and makes them work as a team.”

One youngster carefully negotiates a chain path, children enjoy a team building activity.

The benefits of getting young people out into green environments was brought to public attention by Richard Louv’s groundbreaking book Last Child in the Woods, which introduced the term ‘nature deficit disorder’. While not a medical diagnosis, it suggests links between an indoor lifestyle and attention-deficit problems, depression, anxiety – and obesity.

There are complex reasons why childhoods are increasingly spent indoors: parental fear of allowing children to play outdoors, the attraction of video games and social media, poorly designed urban environments. The Outdoor Centre’s programme is a wonderful opportunity to offer young people something to which they may not otherwise have access.

With the completion of the gymnasium, activities can now be tailored and tweaked according to the dictates of Scotland’s tempestuous weather. It is a large building in a similar architectural style to the Outdoor Centre, and offers a dizzyingly high climbing wall that reaches the rafters.

“We are involved in all sorts of projects, but cannot think of one that is so diverse, interesting and that has such commitment from His Royal Highness”

This building has allowed adults to join fitness classes as part of the Integrated Health Programme offered by Dumfries House.

“These are all GP referrals from the local area for people with various conditions,” Kay explains. “The Integrated Health Programme is a 12-week course where locals get a taster of the different health and fitness activities they can do on the Estate.” There is an on-site health team working with local GPs to help adults in the local community back to fitness and health.

“In the evenings I teach fitness classes: indoor cycling, core and conditioning. It’s spin tonight, if you fancy a class?” he adds with a grin. “One lady who comes to my spin classes, Sandra, was referred by her GP. Since March last year she has lost three stone and is off the numerous medications she was taking when she first came to us.” He is clearly proud of the improvements he can see in the lives of those around him.

But if anyone is a poster boy for the benefits these facilities offer, it’s Kay, who dropped an impressive four stone through a combination of diet and lifestyle changes. In the before and after photos of him in the Gymnasium reception, his current trim physique makes him almost unrecognisable from his former self. It is this personal transformation that he wishes to share with the surrounding community.

The reach of the work being done here, while based on principles of localism and heritage-led regeneration, will hopefully be felt far from the Ayrshire estate. With schools visiting from across the UK and abroad, it is hoped this unique and progressive approach can be a beacon to others and even influence wider policy.

By funding the Outdoor Centre, the Manoukians are helping to make a difference. “As a philanthropist, I believe it is important that those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to give, should do so,” explains Manoukian. “We are involved in all sorts of projects, but cannot think of one that is so diverse, interesting and that has such commitment from His Royal Highness, who constantly inspires and encourages donors to be actively involved and to make a difference. It is enormously heartening to know that your giving can make a real difference to the lives of individuals and communities, and there can be no better example of this than His Royal Highness’s work through Dumfries House.”

While there is no silver bullet solution for complex health and social issues, the work being done at the Outdoor Centre and the other Estate facilities offers something of real benefit to the local community and beyond.

The Manoukians, pictured with HRH The Duke of Rothesay, have funded and been involved with the Outdoor Centre since its inception. They strongly believe that those with the means to give, should do so. Words: Martyn Fitzgerald

photography: Sophie Gerrard