Amid the peace of a farm on Sydney’s outskirts, a group of people are reinventing themselves. 

Cana Farm attracts people from all walks of life, most connected by their shared experience of disadvantage such as long-term unemployment, disability, or time in jail.

The 40 hectare property at Orchard Hills is home to a vegetable garden, fruit trees, a small flock of sheep and more than 100 ducks and chickens. Most lunch times the community sits down to enjoy a meal they’ve grown themselves.

A partnership between Cana Communities Inc. and TAFE Outreach Western Sydney, the farm’s an opportunity for people to start their lives afresh.

 “We all have a history; we all have things in our lives we wouldn’t want published,” explained Cana Farm Manager and volunteer Julie Sneddon. “Older people especially need a space where they don’t have to share their story, but can recreate themselves.”

In the two years since Cana Communities took over the farm’s lease, more than 750 students from disadvantaged backgrounds have studied TAFE courses in horticulture, building and hospitality. A Coca-Cola Foundation grant has also helped expand existing programs with the purchase of an irrigation system and pump for the veggie garden.

Graduates often return to Cana Farm to lend a hand in the garden or act as mentors to new students. It’s like a big family, according to Julie. “We do a lot of work on connecting with each other, and having conversation.”

“The success of the program is due to the very basic understanding that people need time, and need conversation, and need to feel cared for,” she said.

As an independent charity, Cana Communities Inc. runs Cana Farm in addition to city-based residential centres, church shelters and prison release projects on private donations rather than government funding.

“The bulk of the money we raise comes from $2 and $5 donations,” Julie said. “We believe a small amount of money from everybody makes a difference.”

The results are evident in the lives of many people who’ve spent time at Cana Farm during the past two years. There’s the ex-offender who lived as a hermit for years before gaining the self-confidence he needed to do his own shopping and look for employment, and the well-educated professional man who lost everything due to his drug and alcohol problem. He’s now studying, working and in a relationship.

“I think all of them would say that the special part of the farm is that they don’t feel judged,” said Julie.