Recovery Is An Outside Job: Dismas Family Farm


Photo by Michael Piazza

On patch of land in the Worcester Hills, healing is found in the barns and fields
Shuttling between barn and greenhouse, Sean more than looks the part of a Central Massachusetts farmer—dirty jeans, lined flannel shirt and a wide-brimmed cap covering shoulder-length blonde hair, straight as a row of squash. The 28-year-old does nearly everything at Dismas Family Farm in Oakham, even standing in for Jen Burt when the farm manager was out of the country for 10 days in April. Someday, he’d like to have a patch of land for himself where he can grow food for people—a far cry from his more ‘high-minded’ career ambitions growing up.

“Most people have to depend on a farmer three times a day,” he says. ”You’re not going to need the doctor, the police officer or the lawyer—but a lot depends on the guy out there getting the eggs or tomato plants.”

Less than two years ago, nobody depended on Sean. Not even Sean—whose last name we are not using—trusted Sean. He was defenseless against his addictions to alcohol and drugs, estranged from his family and oscillating between jail, ineffectual treatment programs and the Worcester streets. Even the criminal justice system with which he spent much of his early 20s had given up on him.

That’s not the man I find in the greenhouse on an early spring morning, however, tenderly pruning the young tomato plants and confidently recounting how this unlikely place—a nonprofit farm tucked away in the Worcester Hills—had saved his life.

‘A hopeless case’
Sean hadn’t had a drop of alcohol when he graduated from Quinsigamond Community College with his associate’s degree in liberal arts, his future bright with possibilities. It wasn’t until he experienced a bout of personal loss a year later that Sean turned to the bottle. Before long, the young man was under its spell.

“I was at war with the way things were and didn’t know how to deal with the way I was feeling,” he says. ‘I slashed and burned my life several times, meaning I would just drop everything—an apartment, a job. I would isolate.”

Alone and a slave to his secret master, Sean soon found himself without a regular place to lay his head. He’d break into buildings looking for a place to sleep, a practice that earned him many nights in the Worcester jail. Worse, embarrassed about his addiction and problems with the law, Sean isolated himself from his family, previously a source of support.

Two court-ordered treatment programs in Worcester were also the wrong fit for Sean, who was sliding into a sick cycle of going to jail, breaking his probation and being arrested again. Not even the threat of jail could stop Sean from abusing substances and breaking his parole, and faced with continuing to re-arrest and detain a nonviolent addict in perpetuity, the Commonwealth cut him loose a final time with no charges. He describes himself at the time as a “hopeless case.”

Alcoholics Anonymous meetings were a place where Sean, still homeless, could escape the cold and sip hot coffee. At one of these meetings, he learned from a past resident of a farm outside the city that welcomed hopeless cases like him. A refuge from the temptations of the streets and a space to find healing, contribute positively and build community. Sean remembered raising vegetables with his grandfather as a kid and managing the garden shop at a Home Depot in sunnier days. But much more than a chance to put his green thumb to good use, Sean knew Dismas Family Farm could be his last best hope for sobriety, societal re-integration and purpose.

“I was sick of being a loser,” he remembers.

A farm, a family
Here in the Commonwealth, we’ve traditionally responded to prisoner re-entry differently than other social challenges. To address the crisis of mental health, for instance, we created a Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, which works to provide services and support to struggling individuals and their families. Similarly, reducing the number of individuals and families affected by homelessness is a core function of the Department of Housing and Community Development. No such government office exists, however, to rehabilitate prisoners who are re-entering civil society, says Dismas House co-director Dave McMahon.

“Unfortunately, our response is on incarceration, keeping up prison guard salaries and then monitoring ex-prisoners in the community when they’ve been released,” McMahon says. “No part of our response is about the care and well-being of prisoners who are re-entering community.”

A massive criminal justice reform bill, passed by Massachusetts lawmakers in April, offers some hope that the Commonwealth is shifting its focus from incarceration to “restorative justice,” McMahon says, but the bulk of services for ex-prisoners is still provided by a patchwork of halfway houses and transitional programs.

Founded by a priest at the College of the Holy Cross in 1988, Dismas House has provided a “home of welcome” for former prisoners for the last three decades. But even as the house’s urban location affords residents access to jobs and transportation, temptation to use or re-offend is also always on residents’ doorsteps. Years ago, as they waited on their clearance to re-enter the workforce, many ex-prisoners living at Dismas House valued time outside the city, volunteering on area farms.

“The guys went from a pale, unhealthy prison environment to being tired at the end of the day and being able to see the fruits of their labor,” says McMahon, who’s in his 20th year as co-director. “They felt good about themselves.”

“This led us to say, ‘Why don’t we do our own farm outside the city and see how much environment plays a part in people’s lives?’”

Dismas House launched a four-year exploratory and fundraising process, and in 2009—with the assistance of several foundations and area churches and nonprofits—acquired 35 acres of its own, 16 miles northwest of Worcester in the tiny town of Oakham. The land, a portion of which Dismas House owns and the rest it leases from the Commonwealth, has been used as a farm since 1779, when Revolutionary War veteran Stephen Lincoln and his young wife settled there. The farm remained in the Lincoln family for two centuries and was used by two different nonprofits before Dismas House moved in.

In 2010, Dismas Family Farm began welcoming residents, 11 at a time, to move into the 300-year-old farmhouse to support one another through their recovery and reintegration. Residents commit bi-vocational hours to building up and maintaining the farm, be it in the fields, barns, greenhouse or any number of other tasks, from building Adirondack chairs to crafting cutting boards to re-flooring the historic farmhouse.

Residents here are less likely to relapse or re-offend. Recidivism is just 15%–20% at Dismas Family Farm, the lowest rate of any of the Dismas programs in or near Worcester. Even when a former resident does “screw up,” McMahon says they know the doors at Dismas are always open for them to return. “Recovery is a lifelong process,” he says, “and for some people, this is their home.”

The farm survives on the support of donors and volunteer groups who cook for residents five nights a week, as well as on the food its residents produce. Community-supported agriculture membership has recently surpassed 50, with the farm giving away a number of shares to low-income families for free. Dismas manages the Westborough farmers market, and participates in the year-round Canal District Farmers Market in Worcester—each of which is often staffed by ex-prisoners in recovery.

The farm is serious about sustainable production, not only employing organic practices, but also growing year-round in one of the state’s first zero-energy greenhouses, heated by compost and biomass in a wood boiler. Jen Burt estimates the greenhouse will allow the farm to produce as much as 25,000 pounds of food this year—a 66% increase over last season. And customers are already eating up the year-round produce, she says.

“Even people who are, like, ‘What are mustard greens?’ will still buy it if it’s green in February,” she says.

‘He’s our miracle’
According to Burt, residents stay an average of six months at Dismas Family Farm. Sean has lived and worked at the farm for about 24 months. This is intentional: He’s taking his time finding his footing in life. In an almost meditative manner, he quietly and diligently completes his daily chores, from gathering eggs to feeding the sheep to pruning tomatoes. His mother, with whom he wasn’t communicating just a few years ago, drops by often to see him.

“My family’s really proud of me,” he says with a smile. “They say, ‘He’s our miracle.’”

He wants it to stick this time. In years past, Sean says the busyness and excitement of searching for a new job or apartment after completing a program caused him to take his eye off the interior work that is recovery, often leading to a relapse or arrest.

“I’m biding my time and building up the experience and character this place has to offer,” he says.

He’s saving money, too, possibly for a farm of his own. But that’s a decision for another day. For now, Sean is plenty content planting and weeding and pruning, building up the farm that has rebuilt him.

“If I can take one little patch of earth and make it a little paradise,” he says, “that in itself is huge.”

This story appeared in the Summer 2018 issue.