European Social Fund gives Audrey Libres a second chance at schooling, leading her to stable employment.
Following your passion
Pots of vivid chrysanthemums – crimson, gold, rust and cream – line the pavement outside Le Jardinet, a garden centre on the outskirts of Reims in northern France. Audrey Libres welcomes customers, takes orders, makes up bouquets, and attends to the plants in the greenhouses next door.
The 21-year-old has been working at Le Jardinet for three years, and it suits her well. “Sometimes it’s hard work and the hours can be long. But we have a good atmosphere among colleagues. I would like to stay here.” Audrey says she has long wanted a career in floristry, and with some support from training co-funded by the European Union through the European Social Fund, she is now heading in the right direction. But it has not been very easy.
Audrey was born in Sedan, in the French Ardennes, and her love of natural things dates back to her childhood in that beautiful, wild and hilly region in the north-east of the country. “When I was little I was often out in the fields with my father. We used to go out and collect mushrooms. My dad used to push me in the wheelbarrow – I was always dirty!”
But her parents split up when she was nine years old, and she moved to Reims with her mother, who then remarried. Her grandfather was a strong uniting force who helped keep the family – Audrey and her two sisters – together. But when he died in 2001 things got much more difficult.
“I suffered a lot at that time. My father came to collect me every second weekend, but my stepfather wanted to act as a father, and I didn’t want that. I didn’t get on with him at all,” she recalls. “I had a strong character and I talked back. I regret it now. With age, I understand what he wanted to do. He wanted to help us.”
At the same time, her education was not going well. “I didn’t like school,” she admits. “I like moving, and spending all day long sitting on a chair listening to a teacher felt like wasting time. I wanted to start work but my mother wanted me to go on studying.” She left school at 17, after completing just three years of secondary education, and without qualifications. “I don’t regret it,” she insists.
A year later, in the wake of more conflict, Audrey packed her things and left the family home. She went to live with her long-term boyfriend, Nicolas, and his family, and for a while she lost contact with both her parents.
Audrey tried out various work options, for instance in the clothing trade. “But I didn’t like it,” she explains. “I always wanted to be a florist.” Eventually she secured a two-month trial in a flower shop. But at the end of that period the owner no longer needed her, and she was once more without work. “It’s true that at the time I was quite depressed. But everyone around me encouraged me and told me not to give up. It was the School of Second Chance that gave me a fresh opportunity, and I thank them with all my heart.”
A second chance..a fresh start
In November 2004, Audrey started the school, part of the French Centre de Formation d'Apprentis (CFA) of Châlons, in Champagne. She stayed until September 2005, when she signed up for an apprenticeship at Le Jardinet. The School of Second Chance is designed to help young people under 25 to enter the workforce. They take part in ongoing education to improve their skills in French, maths, and communication and information technology, as well as workshops on job-seeking. At the same time, they have work experience that helps them to discover, or confirm, their professional ambitions. The school helped Audrey to find an enterprise that would offer the apprenticeship she wanted.
For two years, as well as working at the garden centre, she undertook training to pass the Certificat d’Aptitude Professionel (CAP) in floristry. She obtained this in June 2007, and decided to go on studying for a diploma in nursery gardening (BEP). The school continues to monitor her progress.
She spends one week every month in Nancy, in the Vosges region of France, studying for the diploma. She needs to be successful in her exams in order to stay on at Le Jardinet, and that means a regular commitment. Nancy is too far away for her to commute each day so she has to travel at the weekend and stay in a hotel.
At the nursery, she enjoys the seasonal nature of the work. All Saints’ Day and Christmas are especially busy times, with orders coming in and arrangements to be made up, which may mean working extra hours to meet the demand. The garden centre, which offers a wide range of goods including garden equipment and accessories and artificial flower decorations, opens six-and-a-half days a week, including Sunday mornings. The staff work shifts, with a day’s rest during the week. Sometimes Audrey also goes with her employer to pick up new flower supplies, near the Belgian border.
Does it require a special talent to achieve just the right combination of colours and blooms for a perfect bouquet? Audrey is modest. “You have to learn about the colours and how to vary them,” she admits. “It’s a question of taste – some are more beautiful than others. When I started, my bouquets were not the ‘top’, and now I can see the difference.
Increased confidence...a brighter future
Her personal life has also settled down. She and Nicolas now share a cosy ground-floor flat with two curious kittens, Chicane and Castrol. It’s too early to think about marriage, though. Both of them are young, and Nicolas has yet to find a job. “We need to be more secure,” she says, cautiously. She has resumed contact with her mother, and with her father, who lives about an hour’s drive from Reims. “My situation is much more stable now, and I feel confident about the future. I really want to have a florist’s shop of my own. That’s my dream.”
Benoit Maujean, the owner of Le Jardinet, has kept a fatherly eye on Audrey’s progress over the years. “She has gained a lot of experience and now it’s up to her,” he says. “She can go much further if she wants to. Now she has to fly with her own wings.”