Special-needs adults thrive on farm
St. Clair Township – — People grow on the Special Dreams Farm.
“It’s amazing. Shannon has been coming here for five months. She has found out that there are so many things that she can do,” said Shannon Swartz’s job coach, Sue Clark. “Today she collected the eggs. Another day she might feed the roosters or build a fence. The last thing she says to me when I drop her off on Fridays is, ‘Can I come back?’ ”
Everyone is welcome at the farm founded by a nonprofit corporation composed of special education teachers, parents and caring individuals, who saw the value in a program designed exclusively for adults with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, visual impairments or other cognitive disabilities.
“The goal when we started was to have a farm where special-need adults could learn life skills in a noncompetitive environment,” said Larry Collette, who, along with his wife, Mary, helped to get the program started.
Their son Greg — who is particularly fond of building things on the farm, including the picket fence and picnic tables around the farmhouse — has been attending the program since it began. Like Swartz, he serves as an example of what can be accomplished by these adults when given the chance.
“I can see the improvement in his gross motor skills,” said Collette, who serves as president of Special Dreams Farm. “He’s 36 years old and his ability to cooperate with others and his understanding of the sequence of things has all improved.”
Building fences and picnic tables requires farmers to work in groups teaching them how to get along with others and make a few friends along the way.
Swartz has to wait until spring to do it again, but one of her favorite chores is cutting the grass. As Clark explained, it’s more than just pushing a lawnmower. It has taught Swartz that it is important to finish what you’ve started.
She’s also learned how to check the machine for gas and oil and what must be done to keep a machine in proper running condition. When she’s done, she cleans it and puts it away, also an important lesson in organization.
Best of all, she enjoys the satisfaction of knowing she completed the job herself. “I just like doing it,” Swartz said. Then she looked up and with a grin added, “It’s good exercise, too.”
During a tour, Collette pointed out an illustration on the wall showing where they’ve come and where they hope to be. The farm sits on more than 30 acres that include a field and greenhouse for growing fruits and vegetables and a large wooded area at the back of the property. It provides for nature trails and firewood.
When the farm was purchased 10 years ago, it was in dire need of repairs. The farmhouse was more than a 100 years old and inhabitable.
Thanks to members of the building trades industry who donated their services, they were able to replace its plumbing and heating and cooling system and electricity. Volunteers have also helped pave the driveway and build the workshop.
Collette hopes to see the program expanded and updated to include a modern farmhouse.
The top floor of the old homestead serves as a sewing room. Its kitchen provides some space for activities and educational opportunities. Still, Collette has dreams of building a modern farmhouse and educational center offering more classes to even more farmers. And there is still room for more participants.
“It has been quite a ride,” said Collette, adding that they’ve recently become United Way affiliated, which lends not only credibility to the organization but also financial support. “I’ve seen more than the results we imagined for our farmers. They’ve all blossomed.”