Growing up with an incarcerated father and single mom, Jamie Tanner thought her family’s problems were all her fault. “My father wasn’t there and I didn’t understand why. I thought maybe it’s me. It’s my fault that my dad isn’t here.”
While she went to school in the suburbs during the year, she spent each summer at her family’s farms and ranches. Her time with nature gave her the solace she needed for the pain from missing her dad.
“Every time I was at the farms, I just had this sense of peace, sense of purpose. I preferred to be outside playing and be with the animals, spending time with them in the barn. My grandmother taught me how to garden and it was my happy place.”
After leaving a career as a nurse combat medic in the US Army – where she experienced a different kind of trauma from her childhood – Tanner graduated from the Dallas Theological Seminary. Still seeking the peace she discovered at her grandmother’s farm, she and her husband bought a few acres outside of Austin so she could have a hobby farm with a home garden and animals where Tanner could share her “happy place” with her own children. She called it Simple Sparrow Care Farm.
Friends and friends of friends came to visit, including many local therapists working with clients with a history of trauma and sensory challenges. They also opened the farm to families caring for foster children or adopting.
“Over the years we just saw how much healing was taking place for these individuals and with these families. My role in their healing was just teaching them how to plant a garden, how to raise chickens and equipping them and empowering them to be able to take these little agriculture farm elements that they learned at my farm and put them into practice in their own backyards however big or small.”
Tanner calls her own farm small, but anyone that visits can see it has a big personality. In addition to the farm plot there are chickens, goats, rabbits, guinea pigs, a three legged box turtle, and a llama named Jacopo who might spit at you if you look like a threat to his herd. The animals are part of the self sustaining ecosystem that Tanner has created.
Simple Sparrow now officially operates as a care farm, a therapeutic model popular in Europe. Care farms offer farming activities as therapy, allowing vulnerable groups to develop connection and confidence through learning how to care for animals and gardens. Following the path Tanner started as a theologian, it is a faith-based educational non-profit.
“What we say out here is a potato farm grows potatoes and a care farm grows care. So like how a potato farmer, they’re focused on getting potatoes out into the community, making sure everybody can eat their French fries. Our focus is to get the care out into the community, make sure that everyone is practicing compassion, making sure that people are equipped to have safe relationships in a caring, compassionate community.”
Bringing the farm beyond the fence
As someone who had experienced both childhood and adult trauma, Tanner was especially interested in helping other trauma survivors that were struggling to find a place for themselves in the world. One of the groups Tanner partnered with was Key2Free, an organization that serves human trafficking survivors and their families in Central Texas.
Tanner invited them to conduct group therapy sessions at the farm, and went to teach classes to their clients. “I taught just some basic art classes, but I’d always bring a small animal with me. And so even if that survivor wasn’t interested in the art, I could almost always get them very interested in whatever animal I brought in.”
Her strategy works. Destiny Buranen, a sex-trafficking survivor, was at one of the art classes and says meeting Tanner, and one of her rabbits named Popcorn in particular, changed her life.
“She came in with all her bunnies and her paint and she had this just like glow on her. We started talking and she made me feel super comfortable. That day I held Popcorn for the first time, I fell in love.”
One of the biggest obstacles for women coming out of trafficking is finding employment. They often accumulate criminal records and don’t have a background that potential employers understand or trust. Because of this, Tanner decided to go beyond the care model to actually offer jobs.
“We developed the care farm employment program in order to provide a part time job for people, for individuals looking to get some job experience, to get social skills, employment skills, to help just start building their confidence that they can show up to a job and get a paycheck, that it’s not a charity handout.”
From the moment Buranen held Popcorn, she knew that the farm was the right place for her and she applied for and got one of the paid positions.
Learning how to trust again
Buranen is one of the many survivors of sex trafficking trying to make a new life for themselves in Texas. A 2016 report by the Statewide Human Trafficking Mapping Project of Texas, reported that there are more than 79,000 minors and youth victims of sex trafficking statewide.
Even after breaking free from their traffickers, many survivors have trouble going back to “normal” life. They experience significant trauma and few have resources to get proper mental health care. In the years after her escape, Buranen got in trouble for drugs and sex work – a common phenomenon for survivors that lack social skills and professional experience to get mainstream jobs.
That changed when she started working at Simple Sparrow.
“The more and more I came, the more and more comfortable I got with these animals. I’d come on some days and I would be upset and sad and I’d pet the goats and I’d feel better. It was almost therapeutic, I guess. You know, even digging in the food to feed them it’s therapeutic, or cleaning their cages. You take your mind off of everything, you focus on the animal and animal focuses you and then you guys build a bond.”
The animals perk up when Buranen walks into the barn. She calls out their names one by one as she fills each food or water bowl, telling them how beautiful they are. Jacopo doesn’t even spit at her – usually.
At 27, Buranen’s recovery is still a work in progress. She knows she has a long way to go towards becoming the person she wants to be, and making sense of her past. For now, her love for the animals and her young daughter are pushing her forward.
For Tanner, working with young women like Buranen fulfills the dream she has for Simple Sparrow and herself.
“Working with extremely vulnerable high-risk individuals can be very scary because you don’t know all of their history and what they have been through and what they could do. But instead of worrying and being afraid, you have to decide to lower your expectations and increase your compassion.”
At Simple Sparrow Care Farm, the compassion grows every day.