Tucked away in one of the poorest suburbs of Wollongong, a city built on mining and manufacturing industries that are now in decline, lies an 11-acre permaculture farm that gives young people and former refugees a chance to learn new skills, try new things, make mistakes, meet new people, and make a difference.

The majority of the young people that come to Green Connect have dropped out of school or are at risk of doing so. Some have learning difficulties, mental health challenges and/or difficult home lives that have made learning the skills they will need to get and keep a job near-impossible. Some of their parents are unemployed, and even their grandparents. Many arrive at the farm for a tour without looking anyone in the eye, refusing to speak or to engage. Later they will report that they’re no good at anything, they “dunno, don’t care” what they want to do, and that they can’t picture a future beyond the next few days.

On their first visit, a Green Connect staff member will take each group of young people on a tour of the farm and they slowly come out of their shells. The first smiles appear, fingers point at animals, plants and other things of interest, quiet words become loud exchanges and laughs. Almost all of them ask how soon they can return.

If they want to, they can join the work experience program, which runs two days per week for four hours per day. Participants are expected to turn up on time, in the right gear, follow instructions, work as a team and work safely. They’re taught how to look after the animals, prepare soil, plant seeds or seedlings, prune, weed, harvest and prepare produce for customers. They’re given feedback on their work by friendly, down-to-earth staff who want them to know that there is so much they’re good at. Young people gain skills, experience, confidence and so much more. Green Connect’s aim is to get these young people into paid work as soon as they’re ready, either at Green Connect or in another local business. “Ready” includes that they want to work, they can do the work, they can get themselves to the job location, they have a bank account and tax file number, they know how to interact with others, follow instructions and ask questions when they’re not sure. Each young person comes with various barriers to employment that require personalised support, something Green Connect has been offering for eight years to ensure their staff can find and keep meaningful, long-term jobs down the track. There is no “one size fits all” at Green Connect. Rather, the motto is “come as you are” and as long as you turn up and work hard, the team will work with you.

What Green Connect has learned is that school is not the only place, nor sometimes the best place, to learn the life skills that will enable a person to thrive and contribute to society. Sometimes a place with no walls but lots of mud, with no teachers but lots of supportive supervisors, and with no homework but plenty of English, maths and science, is the right place to learn and grow. What Green Connect is showing is that every young person has value and skills and things they’re great at and all they need is the right environment and to be given a chance (and sometimes more than one).

The effect is profound. One young person was recently referred to Green Connect by Juvenile Justice to complete four weeks of work experience as a community service order. He arrived quiet and surly, with a big chip on his shoulder and no plans for his future. Within an hour, he was chatting to other young people and getting stuck in to the work. Within two weeks, his father called Green Connect to say his son was enjoying it so much that he would be bursting with news about what he’d done each day, speaking to his parents proactively for the first time in a long time. A week later that young person was talking about getting his drivers licence and white card, and was offered his first ever paid work. His community service order has come to an end but he’s staying on to see where the full work experience might lead and is excited about his future. This is typical of the experience with many young people at Green Connect.

Green Connect is doing things differently and it is working. Perhaps it is a model that could be replicated elsewhere, to give all young people in NSW a bright future.