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Fran's Story: Part II

Disclaimer: The information presented and opinions expressed are solely the author's. Names have been changed to protect identities. The only names kept true are leadership.

Community Service I had hardly slept that first night. Knots in my stomach, tear-soaked pillow, and an ache in my chest kept me stirring. I missed home. When I finally faded into sleep, my alarm went off with the numbers 5:15AM brightly staring at me. I was up and ready to go to work or as they called it, “community service”.

By definition, community service is voluntary work. Some of us may also be familiar with community service being a type of punishment or even volunteer work for some sort of credit. At the Farm, this work was involuntary. While not a punishment, there would neither be credit towards something at the end of the month. The Farm sold this type of work over the phone and website as teaching the residents “life skills”. Somehow, the work on the farm would prepare the residents to go back out into the real world and be equipped members of society. When I spoke over the phone with one of the staff members, she told me that physical work, or this community service, would be needed because it would help with my sleep. We’d be putting long hours towards our healing in counseling that the work would aid in rest. Here’s the thing, I agree that work is good for both the body and mind. Work can be a good method to help distract from certain addictions and even heartache. I can see the benefit and value in using this method for helping with healing. This was one of the areas I was mostly excited about and looking forward to.

Our days were long. We worked from 7am to 4pm M-F with an hour lunch and then were obligated to attend exhausting hour long prayer sessions after work. When daylight savings hit, our hours changed, but they’d still be early and just as exhausting. On Saturdays, we worked until 12pm doing house chores and working on the vegetable garden. There were also extra responsibilities after the work day that some of us were assigned to that ate up even more of our free time. Some of us had chicken duty, meaning we let them out in the morning, fed them, and closed them up at the end of the night. It sounds easy, but could be time consuming. Other residents had horse duty (similar to chickens) while also being scheduled to cook for their house. At the start of all this, I was thrilled about working on a farm to some capacity. But it wouldn’t take me long to realize that the resident’s were literally the only people (aside from some husbands) working the farm; work that wasn’t directly tied to the operations of the Farm.

My first job that morning was pulling weeds, which became a filler for when they didn’t have a real job for us. Later that morning, I was moved to work on the main garden called the King’s Garden. It was a beautiful garden next to the Refuge building. The garden had been built by some of the residents and the women in charge of it glowed with joy as flowers were still in full bloom. We weeded, trimmed, clipped, rearranged, and beautified this already beautiful (and fairly large) garden. On this particular side of the Farm, the wind blew differently. You could hear the dancing blades of grass and we were constantly kissed by floating butterflies. It was certainly a haven and one of my favorite places to walk to on the farm. It became an escape for me when I felt anxious with some of the chaos I experienced on the farm. I could feel God’s presence in this little space that was rarely visited by residents.

At first, I was happy to do just about anything for my “community service” requirement, but that willingness quickly turned to dread. Community service didn’t just mean doing your average work on any farm like taking care of chickens, milking goats, mowing the lawn, or harvesting vegetables. Community service meant we’d do work for some of the houses and leaders that resided on the Farm. One of the most tedious projects that I hated was working in one of the houses’ basement. One of the staff members merely wanted to spruce up her basement for when family visits, so residents were tasked to make it happen. Kelly was difficult to work with (for me). She was demanding, overly particular, and incredibly critical of our work. All of that made working with her dreadful. The other resident’s loved her and I could see why. She was creative, “hip”, and super energetic, but all that was lost somewhere for me as she continued to treat me as if I were a teenager with no life experience vs. a college educated woman. I’d work on other projects on other parts of the farm with her and it would create such anxiety. I always felt like my work was criticized more than others and her tone would often challenge my patience. She made me question my creativity and skills, which if you know me, you know I have them. Working with her was discouraging and deflated the creative pieces in me that are so tender and precious.

Other jobs included “renovating” the Farm owner’s house. She wanted a new paint job in her upper room? She got it. Needed some cleaning, organizing, and sorting? She got it. All this work would be done by none other than the residents. I remember a particular week being very stressful for us residents. The Farm owner had switched up (multiple times that week) how we’d be opening, feeding chickens, and closing. I remember it being very confusing for us all and frustrating because once we got the hang of it, she’d change it up on us causing more time to be stolen from us. It wouldn’t be so infuriating to me if community service served a greater purpose other than sometimes feeling like being work solely benefiting the owner. You never saw any leadership doing the same amount or type of tedious work as us, except husbands and maybe Kelly, but I think that was only because she was such a perfectionist and wanted to micro-manage our work. The only time I saw the Farm owner working was when there was a photo-op. There were no life skills to be learned other than some skills you’d need to live on this Farm.

We were sometimes put in situations that made me feel scared and uneasy. At the beginning of our 30 days, we signed a waiver stating we wouldn’t hold the Farm liable, which made risking our safety less of a legal concern. Painting the massive pantry building was another laborious task consisting of many days of hard work. We often painted standing on wooden planks outstretched over unsecured, old ladders. When the pantry was almost complete, there weren’t any ladders tall enough to reach the very top of the building. One of the husbands suggested using some sort of boom lift, which was also unsecured. I remember witnessing my housemate, Liz, nearly get thrown off the boom lift while attempting to complete this task. I felt terrified for Liz and angry inside for the way they treated us. This final task should have been completed by the husbands (or professionals) and not by teenage girls. Speaking of safety, on other days, we would be isolated in a small room inhaling paint fumes and dust for hours on end.

Besides the physical work on the Farm, none of our time was filled with other coping methods. There were no licensed counselors offering us designated sessions during the week. Our pastoral care counseling sessions were a joke and not led by anyone licensed, but by staff members with no qualifications other than living there. Our quiet times were designated after work hours, when we were exhausted. The majority of our week was spent doing said physical work with the hopes we’d be distracted enough to forget our trauma. That, to me, isn’t dealing with the source of your trauma, but creating enough of a pattern that feels “safe” and familiar (and exhausting enough) to convince you that you’re actually working through your healing when in reality –you never were.

Towards the end of my 30 days, I dreaded waking up. That little “beam” I had while driving through the Farm for the first time, envisioning how I’d spend my time, had been fractured. I didn’t get to choose how I spent my working hours, nor did I learn any of the ins and outs of living on a farm. Work was strenuous. It gave the word exhausting a new meaning. The severity of the pain in my hands, feet, and knees never stopped during the entirety of my stay. I gave these tasks my all and sometimes having my day off taken because my chicken duty and pantry duty fell on the same weekend. It took me a while to admit, but I finally realized that this farm physically exploited its members. This wasn’t your typical farm work as previously mentioned. As a matter of fact, for the first time in my life, I felt the degrading feeling of forced labor.

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