Over the years, hundreds of young at-risk Canberrans have travelled by bus to an old dairy farm on the south-western outskirts of Canberra.
Although the 500-acre farm in Kambah hasn’t been used for its original purpose in many decades, to the untrained eye it may appear as if nothing has changed.
An old stone building from the early 80s remains standing – in spite of the 2003 Canberra bushfires – and the farm’s paddocks are populated by horses, sheep, alpacas and chickens.
But in 1988, the then-abandoned dairy farm underwent a transformation. Selwyn Westwood had a dream to turn the space into a haven for young at-risk Canberrans.
With the support of Canberra and Queanbeyan Lions clubs, he founded Lions Youth Haven and convinced the government to transfer the lease for the farm to the newly incorporated charity.
Thirty-five years later, the lease and Selwyn’s legacy remain in force on the farm now named Westwood, which provides accommodation, support and education and skills training for young people.
Lions Youth Haven chairman Terry McNally estimates hundreds have come through the various service providers’ programs which operate on the farm in partnership with Lions Youth Haven.
“It really is the thing that keeps me engaged and keeps me alive in one sense,” he says.
“A lot of effort goes into it, but when you see your efforts coming to fruition and the kids coming out the other end and getting jobs and joining society, that really does make it all worth it.”
One of the most high-profile services on Westwood Farm is Communities@Work’s Galilee School, an alternative independent school for disengaged and vulnerable young people in years 7 to 12.
“They come from broken families. They are homeless. They are couch surfing or they’re actually on the street. Many cannot cope with the normal school environment,” Terry says.
“They go there to get an education to try and become better citizens or make better lives for themselves once they finish school.”
Southern Canberra high schools also participate in the Lions Youth Haven farm skills education program to re-engage students and boost their confidence and teamwork skills.
“The students groom and feed the horse, feed the sheep and alpacas and do all sorts of things to build up their confidence by interacting with the animals,” Terry says.
“The reports that we’ve received from the schools have been really supportive and there’s an actual waiting list now to get on to that program.”
About 40 students attend the farm skills program in any given week and about 60 more students attend the Galilee School each day.
Other on-site facilities include accommodation for disabled children and their carers, families facing homelessness, visiting school children and respite care for autistic children.
The farm also plays host to an agistment service for about 50 horses and a small herd of cattle, which in combination with tenancy and licensing fees, provides the funding base for the farm.
All seven Canberra Lions clubs (Belconnen, Brindabella, Canberra City, Kambah, Lake Tuggeranong, Canberra Valley and Gungahlin) also support and provide funds to Lions Youth Haven.
Terry hopes to use this successful formula to expand the services offered on Westwood Farm even further, including repurposing its accommodation lodge for people fleeing domestic violence or building demountable homes for people who can’t afford to rent in Canberra. But he says Lions has reached a stumbling block in receiving support from the ACT Government for the proposals.
“We’ve had local ministers out there to look at this and they say, ‘This is a great idea. This is fabulous. Get in touch with us,'” Terry says. “We get in touch and we just get nothing back.
“I suppose the bugbear is that we don’t have a lot of money, so therefore any money we need is going to have to be either borrowed or a grant or whatever else.”
In the meantime, Lions Youth Haven will continue to help many more young Canberrans over the next 35-plus years.