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The Farm at Penny Lane grows hope through therapy programs

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Photo Courtesy of Thava Mahadevan.

This article is part of the Mental Health Collaborative, a project completed by nine North Carolina college newsrooms to cover mental health issues in their communities. To read more stories about mental health, explore the interactive project developed specifically for this collaborative.


Hope Grows Here.

That is the motto of the Farm at Penny Lane, which is located on 40 acres in northern Chatham County and has provided an inclusive and safe space for individuals diagnosed with a serious mental illness since 2012.

“We see it as sort of an intervention within someone’s recovery journey, that if they would have a place to do all these things, to explore where they can find joy, where they can find these meaningful relationships," Matt Ballard, the farm program manager, said.  "And we see these as positive health outcomes that medical institutions can offer their patients."

Ballard said that before participating in activities, clients — referred to the farm by either mental health professionals or themselves — first meet with him individually.

The farm tries to keep the process easy and flexible to make clients feel more comfortable, and they do not request any medical documentation about their diagnosis or request payment for services, he said.

The farm offers a variety of programs in partnership with the UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health and the nonprofit XDS Inc., including horticulture therapy, animal-assisted therapy, music, cooking, expressive arts and yoga. The programs are meant to be complementary to traditional treatment, according to their website.

Melissa Lowell, co-facilitator of the art and creative writing programs, said the farm's Brushes with Life program engages in therapeutic art across mediumsfrom fiber art to painting and collages — either individually or as a group. 

“Nothing is mandatory — like if you come in and you’re attending art, but you really wanted to start your writing early, you could do that too,” Lowell said. “It’s important to respect people’s desires to participate. We don’t want people to feel like they’re forced to do anything that they don’t want to.” 

During her time as a facilitator, Lowell said she has conducted wrap-ups and evaluations after working on art projects with clients and many responses indicate feeling more peaceful and inspired.  

“There aren’t a lot of opportunities for people, especially people who have mental illness, to come into a group where they can express their particular uniqueness to the world and have that level of acceptance,” Lowell said. 

Other clients participate in gardening on the farm, another form of therapy offered. Jessamine Hyatt, the farm manager, said that horticulture therapy is based on research about the therapeutic benefits of nurturing and growing plants.

“The act of weeding a garden itself or being in a garden can be life-giving, and it can sometimes offer up space for people to work through their own things without having to discuss it,” Ballard said. 

Hyatt said she handles everything involved with running the farm itself. She manages the crops and harvesting, as well as storage, distribution and a number of other outdoor maintenance duties. Since the farm is a nonprofit, a lot of her work involves managing volunteers and teaching people who are interested in learning more about farming, she said. 

She said she has always been interested in finding new ways to combine gardening with helping others,  and currently leads a small, non-therapy gardening group for clients and mentors an apprentice. 

“I have seen people arrive in a state of fairly elevated anxiety or tension and then relax over the course of the time they're on the garden," Hyatt said. "That's not at all a surprise to me anymore, I see it often enough."

Penny Lane is currently in the process of a building an affordable tiny home village for clients who may want to live permanently on the premises. The 15-home community will include amenities, food, transportation and direct access to activities.  

Right now, Hyatt said the farm is not always accessible for clients without a personal vehicle. They have a bus that a church lets them use, but there are still people who are not able to come. 

“I’m hopeful that someday public transportation will make it easier for people to get here,” Hyatt said. “And I think my wish for people in general, and our clients in particular, is for more people in our day and age to get outside and discover how healing and magical it is to spend more time outdoors.”

contrib-dth-lifestyle-farm-helping-mental-health-solutions2.jpg

Photo Courtesy of Thava Mahadevan.

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@dthlifestyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com

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