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Farm sprouts hope for troubled kids

A Canterbury couple is using plants and animals to change the lives of troubled young people and provide respite care to their families.

John and Margaret Merrylees operate the Eleazar Family Support Trust on their 22 acre farm at Okuku, near Rangiora. Up to eight children at a time stay with them during weekends and holidays.

On the farm they live without television and videogames. Instead they garden, take care of animals, read, and play old-fashioned board games.

Most come from Christchurch and have conditions such as attention deficit disorder (ADD), dyspraxia, or mild intellectual disabilities. They are often anxious, suffer from low self-esteem, or have eating or attachment disorders. Many come from families that have been in crisis.

Margaret says the vision to set up the Eleazar Trust came from God.

“The programme helps young people develop with God’s guidance. It is a value-based programme in which they must respect one another. We don’t allow any sort inappropriate discussions or behaviour. They know they can’t swear here or watch horrible TV programmes. They experience an alternative set of values.

“We seek to develop the potential in each child. We have various programmes but they all share a focus on the whole person. We don’t use a medical model.

“Rather we give the children the responsibility to work with animals and plants in a safe, unthreatening way. They learn to feel empathy as they care for something outside themselves. The principle we work under is to be God-centred, client-centred, and environment-centred,” Margaret says.

The Eleazar project is environment-centred because it runs on organic principles. There is a herb garden that also serves as a quiet garden where those who want to can sit , reflect. or engage in imaginative play away from the noisier children. Margaret says the quiet garden provides a chance for them reconnect with the earth and our creator.

The young people learn to compost and grow their own vegetables. Medicinal herb beds give them a sense of the power plants have to heal.

“We show them alternatives,” Margaret says. “One boy who stayed with us wouldn’t eat vegetables. We gave him the task of growing runner beans and he looked after them every weekend he came to stay. After he had grown them he started to eat vegetables so it required this interactive experience to get to the point to see vegetables as edible food.”

“We also buy in four-day old bobby calves. The children help feed them for two months and then they go out to the field. They also help care for the adult cows. Chocolate is a cow that has been her for years and is familiar with the children. They connect with her and give her head rubs. We have chickens and turkeys, and in the springtime we bottle feed, which the children love.

“Caring for the animals helps them connect internally, it is a kind of healing,” Margaret says.

Generally the children, aged five to 16, who come to Eleazar are referred by social agencies. Most have a health diagnosis and therefore get some government funding for their stay (this usually means 14 days in six months).

Some do not receive funding and often Margaret and John must try to find sponsorships for them. Margaret says more funding would help balance the books.

She and John are constantly seeking new ways for the farm to make money. One project under way is to make anointing oil for the Order of St Luke the Physician, which promotes healing through prayer.

The Methodist Church has helped John and Margaret out as they have developed the Eleazar Trust. Prince Albert College trust gave them a grant that enabled them to build a two-bedroom cottage. The Rangiora Methodist Church has given them a loan and they have received support from the local Methodist Women’s Fellowship.

The trust is non-denominational, however. There is a Friends of Eleazar who support its work and the Society of St Vincent de Paul provides food parcels for the children. Support also comes from Anglican, Union, and Presbyterian congregations in the district.

Margaret says anyone who wants to contribute to the work of the trust can do so in three ways.

“One is through prayer. The children who stay with us are often in a damaged emotional state as are their families. They need prayer. Another way people can help is through cash or kind. We need second-hand clothing, tree seedlings, and food. Cash of course helps and we do need donations. Thirdly people can help on the farm with gardening, cooking, house cleaning, or working at the stalls where visitors to the farm can purchase preserves, and crafts.”

For more information call Eleazar Family Support Trust on 03 312 8769 or write c/o 23 Browns Road, Okuku, RD4 Rangiora.