A radical new project to rebuild women’s lives
A new live-in program to help women rebuild their lives after drug and alcohol addiction has accepted its first clients.
Reuniting the women with their children is one of the project’s main aims. The children are often removed from their mothers because they cannot care for them.
The first group of women moved into “The Farm”, about one and a half hours from Canberra, last November. They will stay for up to two years, developing skills to gain a job, a home and a support network. A second group of women will be welcomed in May.
“We call it a restoration project because it is about supporting these women to restore their lives as well as restoring the children to their mothers,” said project founder Kate Cleary.
“These are the people the church should be helping, the most vulnerable in our society. Our modern-day widows and orphans, so badly in need.”
The Farm will run as a type of monastic community to help the women heal from years of trauma.
“It is based on a ‘therapeutic community’ model of addiction treatment,” Kate said.
“There are similarities with the monastic tradition where life runs to a rhythm of reflection, study and manual work.
“Our day starts at 7am with half an hour of reflection in the chapel. The residents then do manual tasks around the building and grounds. The afternoon is for study and the day ends with reflection.
“The breakdown of the family equals
the breakdown of the person”
– Kate Cleary
“I say to the women, “You don’t have to join a monastery, but this is an opportunity to take time out to reflect on what has happened to you and what your future direction is, to seek your vocation’.
“Most of these women haven’t had a proper education, so they attend classes in literacy, numeracy and technology. Some are doing online vocational courses.”
The women also study the branch of philosophy called ethics.
“We do ethics and discuss the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude, and how our lives can be different when we grow in these,” Kate said.
“So we discuss ‘What is prudent behaviour?’ That’s a big one and something the women enjoy looking at.
“We also talk about the nature of acts. You do a bad act. If you repeat it over and over it becomes a vice, which is very hard to get rid of. They relate to that as I am sure we all do.
“If you do a good act it becomes a habit and a virtue, a help to you. That’s how you are strengthened in progress to avoid harm.”
A stoic and modest woman, the ex-teacher from Melbourne is well qualified to head the project. Kate also has ample experience of community life, having moved to Canberra in 2009 to join the Missionaries of God’s Love.
It was as an MGL that Kate started meeting women in crisis situations at the Gowrie public housing complex. This outreach grew after she left to minister to women in brothels and jails.
“What struck me was the levels of deprivation I was seeing in the women, often culminating in them being deprived even of their children,” Kate said.
“A lot of people are searching in a fruitless way for meaning in their lives.
“Drugs offer a false ecstasy but when they come down from that, things are, in reality, even starker than before.
“Fathers are usually not around, and the women are often so debilitated their kids are living in Dickensian conditions.
“John Paul II said that when people forget God, their lives lose meaning.
“He also said the collapse of the family would be a calamity and that is what we are seeing. The breakdown of the family equals the breakdown of the person.”
God’s call to Kate to do more to support these women was so “loud and clear” she could not ignore it. After much discernment she decided to leave her community to focus on the work.
Kate lived on the Gowrie public housing estate and, in 2017, asked the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn for an empty convent at Galong to consolidate her mission.
The Farm has since received generous support. It runs with a house care supervisor, a visiting psychologist, a gardener who manages the extensive grounds, a resident doctor and volunteers who stay overnight.
It is a big, three-hectare property, opened in 1917 as a convent for Mercy nuns, with a boarding school and church.
One wing was renovated in 2016 and the rest has since been coming to life. Accommodation is 32 bedrooms with shared bathrooms. There is an administration wing as well as six family units where the women will live once their children have been restored to them.
Most of the women’s Centrelink benefits pay their accommodation and treatment costs.
Pro bono lawyers help with legal issues and Kate is a qualified case manager who supports the women with child protection matters and visits.
“The longer you work with these women the more you see suffering and trauma,” Kate said.
Leaving the safety of her community was hard for Kate.
“And this can be challenging for me, the loneliness of it,” she admitted. “But I know this is from God. I don’t look back.”