Breaking a generational curse

Cassandra and Leigh Tama have escaped a life of violence and addiction in New Zealand to break a toxic generational cycle and forge a better future for their family.

Escaping a life of gang violence and addiction in New Zealand, Cassandra and Leigh Tama now work on a dairy farm in Denison.

When the couple began work in Denison in 2016, they were totally new to the dairy industry, neither having stepped foot in a dairy shed before.

In fact, it was then that Cassandra learned that the little brown cows are called Jerseys, and don’t actually produce chocolate milk as she was led to believe as a child.

She can laugh at this now, looking back with pride at just how far their determination and resilience has allowed their family to come.

Growing up in New Zealand, the Tamas’ lives involved gangs, violence, alcohol and toxic familial and cultural cycles.

Leigh’s father was president of one of these gangs, and he knew that it would be his role to step into his father’s shoes eventually.

On the eve of Leigh’s initiation into gang life, Cassandra gave him an ultimatum — either go to Australia with her and the boys to work on a dairy farm with her cousin, or stay in New Zealand and continue this cycle of poverty, drugs and violence.

In agreeance, they packed one bag of clothes each, bought one-way tickets to Australia with the little bit of money they had, and left their New Zealand way of life behind forever.

“We refused to inherit dysfunction,” the couple said.

“We learnt new ways of living instead of repeating what we had lived through.

“It was up to us to break generational curses,” they said.

The couple had the choice of going to the Gold Coast to be with family, or join a farm run by Cassandra’s cousin in Denison.

“I looked at my cousin’s lifestyle and she was outdoors, working with animals and doing what she loved, and that really appealed to me,” Cassandra said.

Leigh had some difficulty adjusting when he first arrived.

On his second day, he was asked to bring the cows in, a whole new experience for him.

“What have we got ourselves into,” Leigh wondered.

Learning how to operate a farm which involved long days and leaving his extended family behind caused Leigh to feel so much guilt and exhaustion that he slipped into depression, often unable to leave the couch.

His father stopped talking to him and his mother died.

Leigh said he overcame this depression when he realised that he did what he had to do for his children to have a better life.

If his family couldn’t support his decision to move, then it didn’t deserve him.

While the Tamas faced challenges when they first arrived, Cassandra still feels that this was the best option for the family.

“It is the best decision that Leigh and I have ever made,” she said.

Cassandra said the most difficult thing about life on the land was the early mornings — she doesn’t think she will ever get used to waking up early after settling a small baby through the night and riding out in the dark to do the milking, often with three kids in tow.

At times, they have been close to giving up and going home, but Cassandra believes good things take time.

She knows that if they give up, they will fall victim into the same cycle they were determined to break.

The lifestyle they have created during the past few years and the way their two boys have opened up and blossomed on the farm outweighs any struggles, they say.

“At first, it was really hard for them, knowing no one,” Cassandra said.

“They are now doing really well and have settled in.”

Cassandra and Leigh Tama have escaped a life of violence and addiction in New Zealand to break a toxic generational cycle and forge a better future for their family.

The Tamas can see their brave decision to move overseas has caused others in their families to find the strength to break the cycle of poverty in their own lives also.

Now surrounded by family here in Australia, they are happier than they have ever been, and Leigh has a close relationship with his father once again.

“They have seen how hard we have been working and are very supportive,” Cassandra said.

The Tamas felt it was important to tell their story to help other people escape the cycle of gangs, violence and alcohol.

“I know that there will be other young people stuck in the same cycle that we were in, and I want them to know that there is a way out,” Cassandra said.

The couple appears in the annual ‘Lay of the Land’ calendar, created by Connect Well East Gippsland and Wellington and Gippsland Jersey, which is now available for free across the region.

The calendar highlights the importance of mental health for Gippslanders — and farmers in particular — by telling the stories of 12 east Gippsland farmers —including four based in Wellington Shire.

Each farmer tells their own story as it relates to them: financial stress, relationship breakdown, the effects of drought and fire, and their mental health.

For some in the calendar, it’s about smashing the stereotype of the silent farmer gritting their teeth and getting on with the job.

Others share the reality of how they negotiate their lives so they are not consumed by stress and anxiety.

Gippsland Jersey co-founder, Sallie Jones, said the first calendar was created in 2016 to honour her late father, who was a dairy farmer and manufacturer.

“I believe there is power in storytelling because it has the ability to not only impact lives, but possibly save one,” she said.

“I know my father would have loved to have read these types of stories.”

Each year, calendars are distributed via milk tankers to 1000 dairy farms in the Gippsland region.

Connect Well East Gippsland and Wellington and Gippsland Jersey hope it will serve as a conversation starter and provide a resource for farmers struggling with mental health.

The free calendar also includes contact information to various mental health services.

Ms Jones encourages anyone seeking mental health support to keep looking for the right provider and support that is a good fit for them and their circumstances.

“It is incredibly hard to pick up the phone and ask for help,” she said.

“It’s great that there are services such as Head2Help who offer virtual support to anyone who’s struggling.

“I know from talking to many farmers that tractor cabins in the back paddock make for very accommodating consulting rooms.”

Ms Jones said the communities of Gippsland had endured the challenges drought, bushfires and COVID-19 in the past two years.

“The courage of the farmers who have shared their stories in the 2022 Lay of the Land calendar is indicative of the strength and resilience that resonates across all communities in Gippsland,” she said.

“We know that support that comes from the grassroots is powerful … and we have a better chance of improving access to mental health and wellbeing supports and resources, especially for those who have experienced the trauma of natural disaster, when we work together.”

Calendars can be ordered via the Gippsland Jersey website.