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Tanya Jisa paired her love of fresh food with a desire to help women ex-convicts

Benevolence Farm, nestled in pastoral lands west of Durham, N.C., will serve as a transitional living program for just released female ex-convicts.

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    Tanya Jisa founded Benevolence Farm to help women just released from jail or prison thrive on the outside, lessening their risks of going back.
    Cara Tabachnick
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Piled high to the left of a newly constructed greenhouse sit stacks of bored timber. Each newly sawed trunk is spotted with holes, freshly sealed with yellow wax. Curled inside the holes are mushroom spores, oyster and shiitake, that will sprout in six to 12 months, ready to sell at farmers markets around North Carolina.  

It is the first crop for Benevolence Farm, nestled in pastoral lands west of Durham, N.C., which will serve as a transitional living program for just released female ex-convicts. For a period of six months to two years, these women will learn about how to operate the farm, growing their own food along with produce to be sold at farm stands, farmers markets, and local grocery stores.

Benevolence Farm is the dream of social worker Tanya Jisa, who for the better part of a decade has been toiling to bring it to fruition. In 2006 she had moved to Carrboro, N.C., with her partner to join a cooperative housing community and be connected to the local farm and food community that is so popular in this area near Duke University in Durham. Every weekend farmers gather at many local markets to sell produce from their farms.

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Ms. Jisa, who at the time was working at Duke’s medical center, loved fresh food, but was troubled that only some people had access to this food – or the opportunity to work the land.

“I thought, how could I do social work and connect it with food and farming?” she says. A few months later she read a newspaper article that featured a chilling statistic about the rise in prison populations: 1 in 100 adults in the United States is in prison or jail.  

“That just hit me,” she says. “I knew that this was the issue I wanted to focus on,” a way to combine working the land and growing fresh food with giving people leaving prison a fresh start.

Jisa decided to narrow her focus exclusively to helping female inmates returning from prison. Plenty of women were in need of help: In the past three decades the number of female prisoners in the US has grown by 800 percent. Roughly 200,000 women are in prison or jail, most of them for nonviolent or drug-related crimes. Many have had to leave their children behind to be cared for by relatives.

The lives of those just released from prison are challenging. In North Carolina last year 2,784 women returned from prison and more than 16,000 are under some form of community correction, including alternative programs to incarceration. But programs to help them reenter society and address their many needs are few. Almost half the women don’t have a stable place to live, few have job skills, and many are dealing with addiction or mental health issues.

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Struggling with these challenges, one-third of the women will return to prison within three years of their release.

“The experiences of women before and after they leave prison are much different than for men,” says Georgia Lerner, executive director of the Women’s Prison Association, a national nonprofit group based in New York that helps released women. “If we want to stop women from returning to prison, we have to do things differently.”

Jisa had seen that need in the struggles of a childhood friend who had spent most of her adult life in and out of prisons in Florida and who struggled with addiction issues.

“We grew up on the same street, went to the same schools, had the same opportunities, but because of her addiction she has spent most of her life behind bars,” she says.

Spurred to action, Jisa started to tell farmers and others at the local markets about her idea for a farm where women prisoners could live and work. People responded positively, and in the winter of 2007 she held focus groups with people returning from prison. Using ideas gathered there she laid the groundwork for the farm.

She started a website, took classes in how to manage a nonprofit organization, and reached out to other local not-for-profit groups.

In 2009, Benevolence Farm received its official nonprofit status. But it was only toward the end of 2010 that the project really took off. Felix Drennen, a businessman from Alabama, had listed an 11-acre piece of land in North Carolina’s Alamance County with the United Way of Alamance County’s Community Council. Because the location was wooded and remote, many organizations had passed on it.

But when Jisa learned about it, she immediately contacted Mr. Drennen, and 48 hours later, Benevolence Farm had a home just outside the rural town of Graham.
“Then the doors started to open,” Jisa says.

A year later a house abutting the property was foreclosed on, remodeled, and put up for sale. Jisa contacted the Snider Family Charitable Trust, which had donated to the farm in the past, to see if it would help purchase the tidy brick, three-bedroom, two-bath house with white shutters and a porch. The next day she had her reply: The foundation wouldn’t just help – it would buy the house outright.

Today, the house’s bedrooms are ready to accept five women, and a 12-bedroom house is planned for the future. In total the farm will accommodate 12 women.

By 2013, the farm had gone from an idea on paper to the first stages of a 13-acre working farm. But the generosity of the community wasn’t over. After a series of volunteer days and fundraisers, during which workers cleared the ground for farming, Benevolence Farm was chosen as the recipient of the North Carolina State University’s School of Architecture Summer Design/Build Program.

A group of architecture students arrived at the farm last summer and 10 weeks later left behind a new barn for the women to use to clean and store vegetables. The women can also sit under the shady breezeway or sleep in the lofts during hot summer days and nights.

Funds came in to hire a full-time farm manager, Matthew Ballard, who oversaw the preparation of the land to grow crops.

Three acres are being cleared, and in addition to the mushroom logs, a demonstration vegetable garden has been planted. The women will work five hours a day on the farm and will mostly decide what crops to plant themselves, Mr. Ballard says.

The first five women will move to the farm this fall, once six months’ of operating expenses are in the bank and a house manager has been hired, Jisa says. The crops are starting to grow, volunteers are continuing to come, and for the past few months, the farm has been hosting visits from women living at the local shelter.

On a recent sunny day, seven women and two infants arrived to spend an afternoon at the farm. Jisa led a tour. The women were hot and sweaty, shielding the babies’ heads from the heat. But once they reached the cool shade of the barn, smiles broke out.

One of the visitors, Lisa Straughan, said being on a farm felt like coming home.  

“God granted me a green thumb,” she says. “I would love a place like this. I would love a garden.”

For years Ms. Straughan has struggled with drug addiction and has been in and out of prison and jail.

“I was scared to come out of prison,” she says. “When you get back into society after being incarcerated you feel worthless.”  

She had lost custody of her son. After returning from a 43-day stint in jail she was living in a shelter. But out on the farm, she says, she felt at ease, less prone to the anxiety and panic that had ruled her days.

“On the farm it’s just me, God, and the plants,” she says. “This will give me time to think, and maybe I can get my life back on track.”

• Learn more at www.benevolencefarm.org.

[Editor's note: The original version of this story contained an inaccurate description of how the farm property was obtained, incorrectly stated the number of women who could be accommodated, and misspelled the name of the Snider Family Charitable Trust.]

How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to groups that help women and girls:

Helen Keller International helps improve communities by creating year-round gardens for fruits and vegetables and small farms for raising poultry and livestock. Take action: Empower women through home gardening.

Nepal Orphans Home provides food, shelter, clothing, schooling, health care, and a nurturing environment to enable the children to develop their potential. Take action: Provide vocational training.

Children of the Night is dedicated to rescuing America’s children from prostitution by providing education and mental health services. Take action: Volunteer with Children of the Night.

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