William Gibson found gardening and cooking helped him get back on track after a rough patch. (ABC Ballarat: Sian Johnson)
After William Gibson became homeless at 14, the day he started planting a vegetable garden at his first proper house since living in a tent changed his life.
“It was the first day I moved into the property — my very own home, not just a room in someone’s house,” he said.
“I looked out the back window to the little garden bed and saw it was just filled with weeds. I had nothing else to do — I didn’t have a couch or a TV or anything yet — so I just jumped out there.”
“The sun was shining and I was just pulling out the weeds and getting it ready. It was amazing, and I couldn’t wait to start something of my own.”
William, now 18, grew up in the regional Victorian city of Ballarat, but a tough situation at home prompted him to leave home at 14.
He spent about eight months sleeping in a tent in public spaces, occasionally staying on friends’ couches, until local charities helped him back onto his feet and, eventually, into his own home.
A new ‘care farm’ on the city’s rural fringes set up by an organisation that helped William aims to harness the therapeutic effect hands-on activities such as gardening, caring for animals, and creating works of art can have on young people who are struggling.
It’s hoped the 3-hectare property will provide a fresh, evidence-based approach to help turn things around for some of the region’s young people.
Ready to take on the world
That moment William put his hands in the dirt to pull up the weeds at his new home sparked memories of the veggie patches and chickens his mum kept when he was growing up.
Since then, wherever he has lived, he’s always had an array of fresh herbs and vegetables growing.
William Gibson found gardening and its link to cooking therapeutic after he faced a period of homelessness. (ABC Ballarat: Sian Johnson)
Being homeless during his teenage years meant William’s education suffered as well. He went part-time, and then stopped going at all.
“It was just too difficult to keep on top of hygiene and getting to school, and also just the mindset I was in,” he said.
William joined a cooking program offered through Ballarat Child and Family Services (CAFS), and it cemented his passion for growing and cooking his own food.
Now he’s halfway through getting a three-year commercial cooking qualification through TAFE, and works full-time at a local pub.
He’s got big plans for his future.
“Cooking is one of those occupations that can take you all over the world,” he said.
“I’d love to travel and see every different continent and city, and learn all the different techniques and cuisines and bring it all back to Australia one day and start my own restaurant.”
‘Outside things’ better than talking
Psychologist Tara Darby said ‘care farming’ was relatively popular in the UK, but the property being set up at Springmount, near Ballarat, is one of the first in Australia.
The sprawling green property, which features a hedge maze, will focus on treating young people who have faced adversity and childhood trauma.
An orchard, a market garden, animal-assisted therapy areas and wetlands to fish in will all be available to visitors.
This ‘care farm’ on Ballarat’s fringes will feature a diverse range of activities to provide therapy to children and young people who’ve faced trauma. (Supplied: Child and Family Services, Ballarat)
“It’s really about becoming quite creative and thinking outside of the box when it comes to treating mental health and social, emotional and behavioural issues,” Dr Darby said.
“It’s more difficult to get the right help for children because they often don’t benefit from going to see a psychologist and sitting in a room and talking about it.
“We just know that children don’t have the level of insight or that part of their brain, that talking part, is not developed enough to be able to benefit from those types of interventions.
“That’s why we want to have things like art and play and outside things and animals and sensory gyms, because it’s very child-focused.”
Some parts of the farm officially opened on the weekend, and other areas will begin operating from early to mid next year. It’s expected around 400 young people will get treatment there in 2019.
“We know that [in] children who have experienced early childhood trauma, those experiences have such a profound impact on the way that key neural networks in the brain actually organise themselves,” Dr Darby said.
“Having sensory interventions helps us to target the parts of the brain that have been most impacted by early trauma.”
Disengaged kids linked to untreated trauma
CAFS is investing $5 million over five years to develop the facility it believes will turn things around for some of the region’s young people in need.
Chief executive officer Allan Joy said he believed current approaches were not working, so the organisation was trying something new.
“There are a lot of kids who aren’t engaged in school in this region,” Mr Joy said.
“There are a lot of kids who are in residential care or other forms of out-of-home care and they’re not functioning as well as they could, and we believe that’s a result of childhood trauma that hasn’t been addressed.
“When a child is traumatised it affects the development of their brain and their capacity to do things, so what we’re doing is using a model that identifies the individual traumas children have suffered.
“By putting together individual packages, we’ll be able to assist individual kids — that’s why we exist.”