By Bob Groeneveld and Matthew Claxton/Langley Advance Times
A new water buffalo ranch in rural Langley will be the latest outpost of a drug rehab treatment chain funded by a B.C. furniture store magnate.
On the job training at the John Volken Academy isn’t just about learning the job, it’s also about dealing with life.
And that life training expanded into Langley on Tuesday, July 2 with a sod-turning for a new farm at 232nd Street and 40th Avenue, where the John Volken Academy Farm kicked off construction with Langley Township Mayor Jack Froese using a golden digger scoop to turn some soil on the site.
It will ultimately be a place where students in recovery from drug and alcohol addictions will help raise bison and water buffalo, as well as growing fruits and vegetables, said Volken, the founder of the academy project, who was on hand for the official groundbreaking.
“We’ve done it, now that I’m almost dead!” Volken joked at the event, before a crowd of about 150.
Now retired from business, Volken founded United Buy and Sell furniture store chain, which became United Furniture Warehouse. His stores expanded across Metro Vancouver in the 1980s, selling budget new and used furniture.
In recent years, he has poured his money into charity work, including orphanages in Africa, and more recently the John Volken Academy.
John Volken Academy rehabilitation program has been operating in Surrey for about a decade, one of three John Volken Foundation programs in North America.
The foundation also operates a furniture business, along with a moving company, in Kent, Wash., and a boarding stable housing about 100 horses in Gilbert, Ariz.
In 2009, Volken started building drug rehab centres that focused on life skills training for the addicts.
That includes an $80-million drug treatment facility in Newton that opened in 2015, just before the epidemic of fentanyl caused lethal overdoses to spike across B.C.
“When you see people coming in, they’re really, in a way, dilapidated human beings,” Volken told Black Press Media of his Newton centre last year.
“They feel bad about themselves, they’re depressed, totally down on themselves and when they graduate they are leaders. They are strong. We don’t change anybody, really, we just take the toxic out of them and they become what they’re meant to do.”
Volken is “fairly religious,” explained foundation director Bil Koonar, who explained that Volken believes that God had allowed him to succeed so that he could use his money to help people.
The programs themselves are not religious or religion-based, said Koonar, but participants are “encouraged to have a spiritual component in their lives, whether that means going to church, or sitting under a tree and meditating.”
The new Langley site is the latest Volken endeavour, becoming a large sustainability-focused farm that will be operated without government funding.
The 108-acre site has been cleared, and is a partnership between the John Volken Academy and Avenue Machinery, a farm equipment company.
The farm is to become a state-of-the-art sustainable business, providing numerous job and life skill opportunities in management and operations, in concert with the academy’s PricePro supermarket in Surrey, which provides local food such as specialty bison and water buffalo meats.
The business model that the Volken operations use has been effective, both to teach skills of the business, as well as life skills, Koonar said.
The Surrey PricePro store, offering a long-term – minimum two years – job and life-skills program to help 19- to 32-year-olds recover from drug and alcohol addictions, is just one example.
The success rate has been very good, but not perfect, Koonar said.
“They’re told from the start that it is not going to be easy.”
It will take time to add the Langley farm to the program, with its job opportunities from cheese and sausage making and animal husbandry to skills such as carpentry and welding – which could be transferable to construction and other industry not necessarily directly related to agriculture.
But the most important skills that academy students will learn at the farm will be how to deal with life, to redevelop the routines that “those of us who haven’t been there take for granted – how to put your socks on and get to work every morning.”
Students don’t necessarily stick to a single job through their stay in the program.
“It’s not about learning to be a baker or whatever, Koonar said. “It’s about getting to work in the morning, more about learning routine than actual job skills, although those are important, too.”
In fact, they often start with simple labour, generally in cleaning, he explained: “It usually takes a bit of time to decompress.”
Participants in the program often come off the streets, or from situations in which their lives have been chaotic and without routine.
“Most have tried a shorter program first,” Konnar said, “and it hasn’t worked for them.”
The water buffalo farm is expected to be complete and running in about two years.
“The scale of this [new Langley] project draws attention to agriculture – it’s important to our customers that people are aware of where food comes from,” said Avenue Machinery’s operations manager Chris Britten.
“As a partner with the farm we can help educate the general public while helping change the lives of those struggling with addictions,” Britten said.
“We’ve been trying to get more therapeutic communities and long-term treatment in British Columbia for a long time,” said Langley East MLA Rich Coleman, who was also on site for the sod turning.
“The John Volken Academy has been one of the best models we’ve seen, ever,” Coleman said.
Township Mayor Jack Froese was also on hand, using an excavator with a gold bucket to conduct the official sod turning.
A retired farmer himself, he supports farming and encourages food production in the Township of Langley, had recently returned from a Resilient Cities conference on climate change in Bonn, Germany.
“The farm has been designed with sustainability in mind. I can get behind a project that is prioritizing energy and water conservation,” he said, noting the farm will use advanced techniques that take climate change into account.
“These are going to be the issues of tomorrow. I’m happy that this farm and others in the Township of Langley are leading the way for others to follow,” Froese added, noting the John Volken Academy Farm will be open for tours and have a corner store, as well.
He sees “agri-tainment” as extremely valuable in public education on sustainable living. “My wife and I also built a store on the corner of our farm and have loved having city people to come out and learn about agriculture. It is an important piece to agricultural education.”