Vital People: Finding hope and healing at Serenity Farm

Twice a week, some of the region’s most marginalized people struggling with addictions, mental illness and chronic offending find peace, solace, hope and support while working at Feeding Ourselves and Others, a therapeutic community-garden project sponsored by the John Howard Society of Victoria.

The participants, who work in a large garden overlooking the Blenkinsop Valley, typically include people with mental-health and/or addictions issues, with a few attending as part of court-mandated community-service work.

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They work side by side with a group of volunteers in a neutral setting, interacting as equals.

There are many day-to-day tasks that need to be done in a garden and everybody is encouraged to try everything at least once.

“Some find they like to water plants, some find turning over the compost therapeutic, some really enjoy harvesting vegetables and fruit, and others take pride in their meticulous presentation of the produce for sale,” said Dave Johnson, who oversees the project for the John Howard Society of Victoria. “Nobody has to do the same thing twice — unless they want to.”

The groups meet and work twice a week.

“It’s all about the trust that develops,” Johnson said. “Once they are comfortable, they open up and share stories.”

The project is a partnership between the John Howard Society, Island Health, Assertive Community Treatment teams, the Victoria Integrated Community Outreach team, the Victoria Integrated Court and the Seven Oaks Tertiary Care Facility.

It has been in operation since 2012. Some of the funding this year has been provided by the Victoria Foundation.

Between April and October last year, 33 participants — and 18 volunteers — put more than 2,400 hours into the garden.

For their efforts, they harvested more than 1,800 kilograms of organic vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers for sale and for themselves. These activities returned more than $8,000 to the project.

“When we sell the produce, participants see for themselves that their effort has worth,” Johnson said.

He acknowledges that gardening isn’t for everyone. Joining the project is strictly voluntary, and individuals have an opportunity to try it out for a day to see if it appeals to them.

“Up to 80 per cent of our participants are returning guests.”

Proof of the program’s success can be found in its unofficial name: Serenity Farm.

The garden is located at the Seven Oaks Facility, 4574 Blenkinsop Rd.

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