'It's really hard. It's a good hard, though': Unique B.C. farm program helping people battle addictions
At Academy Farms in Langley, they raise bison and water buffalo.
But this is more than a farm.
It’s a place that’s helping people from across the country find their way out of addiction through hard work, determination, and the therapy that working with animals can bring.
“Animals have a way … of helping us through some of the toughest times,” said Marc Vance, one of the farm managers at John Volken Academy, a long-term drug and alcohol rehabilitation program.
And tough times are something the program participants – referred to as "students" at the farm – know all too well.
“I was addicted to meth and cocaine," said Josh Draper, a student at the farm.
"I struggled with it for a lot of years. And I was getting in trouble with the law," he said. “I have a little boy at home, two years old. That’s why I’m here."
Students are up early, working long days, six days a week. They take part in programs at night.
There’s no other program like it in North America.
“It’s really hard. It’s a good hard, though,” said Draper, 33, who came to the farm from Brandon, Manitoba.
“There’s probably not a harder program out there in North America for addiction,” explained Vance, adding that it takes a lot of willpower to get through the two-year program.
He said many of the students have tried shorter programs before landing at Academy Farms.
That was the case for Sam Cummings.
“I’d get out (of treatment), work for a bit and fall back into the same lifestyle and patterns,” said the 25-year-old who struggled who struggled with booze and cocaine.
He said he often wanted to quit the program, but after a year, things started to change.
And he credits the program with that change.
“It’s given me … self-confidence and self-love. It’s given me an opportunity for a career,” he said.
Cummings is about to graduate from the academy. He helps care for the animals, but is also part of the farm’s welding apprenticeship program and will turn his new trade into a career.
“I’m hopeful. And I’m proud of myself,” he said.
Student Tucker Armitag said he started using alcohol to cope with life.
“When I would drink at night, I needed cocaine to wake me up in the morning,” he explained.
He spent a lot of time in and out of detox and psychiatric wards as he struggled with mental health.
“The darkest point in my addiction, that lifestyle, I had a barrel in my mouth, pretty close to suicide,” he explained.
But he said at the academy, the other students hold him accountable.
“It’s more my brothers keeping me accountable and changing my behaviors and that’s kind of what I needed in life,” he explained. “I have so much more to live for. My purpose in life was way bigger than I could ever even imagine.”
Draper agrees that accountability is key.
“We hold people accountable for messing up and we change that. We work on it together. Without the group of guys I’m here with, I wouldn’t be able to do it,” he said.
Josh Draper, a student Academy Farms in Langley, works with a water buffalo.
The two-year program, which includes room and board, costs $5,000.
Vance said the money is a commitment from the students, but isn’t a barrier to someone being accepted.
“If somebody is coming off the streets and they don’t have any money and their social worker is trying to help and they’re ready to do the work, nobody's going to get turned away,” explained Vance.
Becoming emotional, Vance talked about what it’s like to see students graduate from the program.
“It’s a pretty amazing feeling to know that person let you be a part of their life,” he said, adding they become like sons to him and his wife.
“Every day, someone is going through a big struggle, and every day someone there’s also maybe someone hitting a big milestone, had a victory,” he said.
Vance said students are encouraged to “find a higher power,” but that the academy, a non-profit, is not faith-based.
While some students drop out, Vance said those who have completed the program are doing well.
“The calibre of these young people coming out of this program, it’s phenomenal,” he said.
Each of the students CTV News spoke to was excited about the future, including Draper, who said he’s going to start an apprenticeship for welding.
He said the academy has given him all the tools he needs to succeed, even when faced with tough times.
“There’s always a way. You just have to change,” he said.
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