I sat in the bumpy back seat of the car gazing out the window, surrounded by rugged cliffs, leaning palms and paddy fields, wondering what my Christmas day would be like this year.
As we got closer to our destination, the low clouds began to reveal the volcano of Gunung Gede and the thought struck once again (as it often does in this region) that Indonesia really is a breathtaking country.
After four hours from Bandung, West Java, we arrived at a quant old building surrounded by lush fields known here as “The Learning Farm”.
My Bahasa was vague as I introduced myself and our small team, to the youth that started to curiously surround us. I knew already researching the project that these young adults harboured memories no-one would want to hold on too. Straight away I knew these kids would be different than other youth I had interviewed before — something about the confidence in the way they first approached me, and the vulnerability when they spoke. They looked tough, but welcomed us into their new home with genuine warmth.
We dropped off our bags and sat down in on the floor, as the Program Manager Mr Mursyid formally introduced us. I had come here with my two co-workers, Laura and Ash, to voluntarily create a small video for the project. It needed funding to support the increasing demand of troubled youth from all over Indonesia, looking for a way to transform their lives from neglected teens to functioning members of their communities. We wanted to learn; how on earth do they do this!?
It was still dark when I woke the next day. Laura, my project manager, was sleeping beside me on the floor. Next to us in the small room was two empty beds, the female staff were already awake. I looked at my phone — it was 4.30am.
By 5am everyone is busy. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for all these kids when they first arrive — one day roaming the streets by night, and now, sleeping by 9pm and rising with the sun. It’s all part of the program. Discipline, commitment, routine; everything in their daily activity is part of the monumental effort to change their lives.
The Kampung (garden) is full of fruits and vegetables, and everyone is working hard to keep the garden beds in perfect condition. Pak De teaches everyone about the process of organic farming with a great love and sense of humour, and the students take pride in their work. One boy enchants me with his tender care as he lifts a new seedling from the greenhouse soil, while a young girl from Pulau Alor serenades us all with her beautiful voice as we kneel on the earth and listen:
Leaving Father and Mother Behind,
Let us fight, under the banner of Karang Widya..
Forward… let us go forward…
Come on, come on, let’s go forward,
Take away that, remove all poverty and ignorance…
One by one, I spend some time with each student, listening to their stories with a translator by my side to help express their words. One by one, I am brought to tears by the raw sadness of their young life. Many were caught up with drugs and alcohol, but some were simply from families too poor to send them to school.
One boy had come here from the rainforest island of Borneo. When both his parents were tragically killed in an accident, orphaned, he tried to survive by working in an industrial mine. After two weeks of witnessing the extent of the environmental destruction of his island, he quit.
Some students wrote about how they would hold people at knife-point to steal money, or worse — prostitute themselves to older women. Most of the students had lost their sense of self-worth & dignity. One 17 year old boy opened up to us, admitting that his mother and father showed him nothing by love — and he abused that.
The stories which really broke my heart were those of poverty. The ones who fought for their future and dignity, never giving up despite all odds against them. Akinus from Western Papua had tried desperately to get an education. He would travel for 6 hours every day — by foot and by boat — to get to school. Then one day, in a big storm, his boat was washed away.
All the students that come here to The Learning Farm try understand their past, so they can build a foundation on which they can create their own future. Even though the students I met were all mostly newcomers, they all already showed incredible transformation and potential.
John was by far the most entertaining; 20 years old glowing with confidence and ridiculously contagious humour. An open-hearted hip-hop rapper, he shared a light on his shameful history of crime and alcohol, while declaring his newfound ambitions and dreams to overcome his past & become a famous performer! He could make everyone laugh and was an absolute joy to be around. There is no discrimination here, and everyone is free to practise whatever faith they wish, so the next morning at the break of dawn, when I heard the sound of muslim prayer — even as an atheist— I prayed for Johns success.
The Learning Farm has an 80% success rate, measured from 6 values:
6. Showing Initiative
We wanted to see what this success looked like, and meet some alumni to ask what an impact the Learning Farm has on their life.
That’s how we met Santibi.
You could never tell from the cheeky smile on his face, how rough his life once was below the poverty (and dignity) line. Laughing, he told us how he had always enjoyed cooking and used to cook for his friends. Eventually, word had spread, and after his experience with TLF he was offered a role working within a bakery. Now — he is the manager, and he explained to us he has ambition to achieve more!
Now there is a whole new world for me to discover!
Santibi is not alone in his success since leaving The Learning Farm. Another Alumni, Iwan, has had an inspiring career as a teacher and facilitator at a number of different schools, despite his dark past. When we spoke to him about the most memorable lesson he has learnt in life, he recited a quote his teacher used to say to him during the TLF program:
Those who can read nature can grasp the world!
One by one we met incredible Alumni who had literally changed their lives from despair and darkness into inspiring members of their community.
Once a student graduates from the program, the board members try and support them through extensive networks. Some graduates get work at other organic farms in the region, while others simply go back to their villages — with new knowledge and accomplishment. Akinus from Western Papua had a simple dream: to return to his village and teach his community about organic farming.
Each alumni of the program becomes a role-model for youth with similar backgrounds, and almost everyone remains friends, supporting each other into the future. The reoccurring theme every person mentioned was the “extended family” they met at the Learning Farm. The teachers, mentors and students are one big family, sharing love, fear, pain, respect and most of all — hope.
Like every non-profit organisation, the future is never certain. But I know we will continue to support them in every way we can, sharing their story and encouraging others to do the same.
In retrospect — I think the whole experience was probably the best Christmas present anyone could ever ask for.