Article by Tony Wright reposted with permission from The Age Victoria
Smoke curls around the figures of 10 boys on a Yarra Valley hillside in wisps and hangs among the trees.
Two horses, coated against the wintry air, drift by. A couple of dogs – Beamo, a border collie-kelpie cross, and Bilbo Baggins, a large-boned animal of indeterminate breed – slink between their legs.
Potatoes roast in the ashes of a campfire. Beans heat in a camp oven. Later the boys will toast marshmallows, sticking the confectionary on sticks. Laughter floats among the trees.
It could, with a tweak here and there, be a painting from the Heidelberg school. An impressionist’s view of a carefree day in the Australian bush. It is something else altogether.
Those boys up there on the hillside – the one with the anxious eyes, the young fellow laughing too self-consciously, the big lad hunkered down in his hoodie, not looking at any of the others – all of them, one way or another, are askew within themselves.
With a bit of fortune, plenty of encouragement, a dose of prodding and the touch of the wet nose and the warm coat of a dog, a horse or a cow, they are learning to regulate the unreliable beat of their spirits and their moods, to operate in some syncopation with the team they are becoming.
This is The Good Life Farm, a Yarra Valley property at Chum Creek, near Healesville, devoted to helping troubled and at-risk young people from Melbourne’s suburbs to gain a measure of control, confidence and direction in their lives.
Lesley Porter, a no-nonsense woman with a heart the size of the sky, set up The Good Life Farm some years ago for a straightforward reason.
She wanted to save lives.
She wanted, she says, “to show kids that you don’t have to continually repeat the cycle of being emotionally or physically or spiritually disadvantaged”.
Lesley has an uncommon knowledge of what such words mean.
Aged five, she was orphaned when her entire immediate family was killed in a car crash in England. She was raised by a grandmother who, she says, brought her to Australia but didn’t want her.
“When I was nine, I was living in a caravan by myself outside a house owned by people who didn’t want to share their table with me, estranged from everyone,” she says. “I was sexually abused, physically abused, emotionally abused.”
And then, aged 11, she got a job mucking out the stables at a riding school at Healesville.
The first time she touched a strong, gentle horse, she knew what love felt like. It breathed salvation.
“Horses saved my life,” she says.
“That’s what I created this place is for. To introduce kids to animals. To save lives.”
It took years, and as a non-profit arrangement, the farm relies on donations, bequests and funding from schools and shires, though there never seems to be quite enough.
Nevertheless, The Good Life Farm has emerged as the only such organisation in Australia and Lesley dreams of establishing more farms across the nation.
“One of the big things missing in the lives of a lot of the young people who come here is boundaries – they’ve never been given or taught the meaning of boundaries,” she says, watching at the boys sitting around their campfire.
“I’m old-school. I’ll tell them how it is, and I’ll stick to it. They need to know there are consequences: no firewood, no fire, no lunch. It’s how life is.”
Everyone gathered wood; even the boy who first refused and sat on a log, staring at the ground, thinking about the deal for long minutes. Eventually, he became so enthusiastic he lit the fire.
Without quite knowing it, these city kids squelching around paddocks in rubber boots are learning about the beat of their own hearts. Grassroots Healing, it’s called. They are surrounded by horses, dogs, cattle, pigs, chooks, turkeys and goats. They are required to tend to the needs of the creatures.
None of it is sugar-coated. If they are to eat pork chops tomorrow, Lesley explains their meal has come from a pig they might have fed last week.
When Fairfax Media turns up a boy rushes up with the warning that “you mustn’t turn your back on the big brown alpaca. She’ll try to jump on your back”.
“If she comes at you, stand still and look her in the face,” says another boy. “Her name’s Rosa. She’s really nice, actually.”
Rosa turns out to be an inquisitive and gentle animal, forever following us around. Lesley tells us that four weeks ago, when this group of boys arrived, they were all terrified of Rosa.
They wouldn’t go near Stimpy, either, the old friesian-angus cow with big horns.
Now, the boys hand-feed her hay and comb her coat, mourning when they learn that she has lost her teeth and will, soon, be put down because she is losing so much condition.
The boys are required to do health checks on all the animals, and see to their needs.
“I tell them there are seven things that all living things need,” says Lesley.
“Food, water, sunshine, oxygen, shade, shelter and company. The kids have to make sure all the animals have all these things, and it reinforces the idea that they should check on themselves and their mates, too.”
Most of the boys have found themselves drawn to the horses. The animals are big and gentle, but those of the group who have been bullies soon learn you can’t push a horse around.
Though we have gained permission to spend a day with and photograph the boys, for reasons of privacy we are not to use their names in print. Trust is a big word around The Good Life Farm. Streams of young people with different names pass through these paddocks each year. The names are not as important as the stories of what this place comes to mean to them.
The 10 boys attending the farm on this day are in the fourth week of a 10-week course called “student well-being”, held each Wednesday.
Most courses at the farm comprise an equal number of boys and girls. But too few girls were put forward by their schools this time, and the farm had no wish to have, say, two girls among eight boys.
Those attending the student well-being course were recommended by their schools because of low-level social and behavioural problems – some bully or are bullied; some are frustrated by learning difficulties. Some are given to verbal outbursts, some push and shove teachers and other students. Some are withdrawn. Most are anxious.
“Most of these kids can’t regulate their emotions – they feel something, they let it out,” says Tenille Porter, Lesley’s daughter who is studying post-graduate psychology and who spends much of her time among the young people who come to the farm.
Those attending this course might have problems, Tenille says, but they still live at home with parents and family and attend school.
Other courses held on different days of the week at the farm are for much more profoundly-damaged young people who have few reliable moorings.
Many of them are homeless, are sent to the farm as a condition of probation from juvenile detention, are deep in drug and alcohol and legal problems, have suffered dreadful abuse as children, and have often altogether lost their way. The sort of kids who, in another part of Australia, might find themselves in a place like the Don Dale Detention Centre, of Northern Territory infamy.
Lesley’s voice becomes tender when she talks about these young people. “They’ve never had proper childhoods,” she says, and tells of taking one group of tough tearaways off for a picnic.
“You know what they wanted to do?” she asks. “All they wanted to do was play hide and seek. They loved it. They’d never played it before.”
Find out more about The Good Life Farm.