While describing their work in the barn, Daniel and Tom break into a fit of laughter when asked if they hold the animals. “You can’t hold a horse,” Daniel says as Tom vigorously nods his head. They had just talked about cleaning up the horse manure and thought the question was about the horses and not the rabbits. A few minutes later, the two calm down and show off Bozo the pot-bellied pig. But it isn’t long before they start giggling again about the question from Matt Wolfram who takes it all in stride. He’s happy that the two autistic men are comfortable around a stranger.
“They feel safe and comfortable here and enjoy their work,” said Wolfram who is day program coordinator for Bittersweet Farms. “It’s good to see them so happy.”
For more than 30 years, Bittersweet Farms in Whitehouse has offered habilitation programming and skills development to autistic adults. It bills itself as the first farm model for adults with autism in the United States and has drawn visitors from as far away as Australia and Taiwan. Participants work in Bittersweet’s greenhouses, barn, wood shop, ceramic studio and kitchen and out in the pastures and fields where they take care of the land or chop wood.
“People with autism need meaningful tasks and to be able to see the beginning and end of what they do. Working on widgets in a shop doesn’t work for them. This is a protective work environment that gives meaning to them,” said Vickie Obee, director of Bittersweet Farms.
The idea for Bittersweet Farms came from Bettye Ruth Kaye, a Toledo public school teacher hired to teach autistic children in the 1970s. Back then, the frequency of autism was one in 10,000; today it is one in 50, according to Obee.
“Bettye had a small group of disruptive students and they didn’t know what to do with them so they put her in a room underneath the gym,” Obee said.
Concerned about what happened to the students when they became adults, Kaye started looking for services that would meet their needs. She ended up in England where she visited Somerset Court, a farmstead community for autistic adults. Inspired, Kaye returned home and, in 1983 Bittersweet Farm opened its doors to 15 residents on 80 acres, half wooded. Today, Bittersweet Farms’ day program serves more than 50 people with autism at its locations in Whitehouse, Pemberville and Lima. Several autistic adults live at the main facility in Whitehouse or nearby in HUD housing. About 85 percent of funding comes from Medicaid and the rest from grants or donations.
The farmstead, complete with walking path and swimming pool, is the perfect place for staff members to execute what Obee calls MAPS, which stands for meaningful activities, aerobic exercise, partnership and structure. Participants have a choice in what type of work they want to do every day, whether it’s weeding the garden, making pesto for consumers, cleaning up after the barn animals or making art to sell at fairs. For the past four years, Bittersweet Farms has had about 80 people buy produce grown at the farm as part of its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Some of the food is donated to local food pantries.
“We want this to be a realistic work environment with a dress code and requirement that you interview for the position. We help develop skills so they can move on to community employment if they want,” Obee said.
Working with animals often helps autistic people with life skills, and Bittersweet Farms plans to expand that interaction with the help of a grant from the Animals for Life Foundation, which was started in 2009 with help from the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation. The $2,115 grant is being used to provide therapeutic animal training for staff so Bittersweet Farms can look into offering therapeutic riding.
“Some autistic (people) will really open up and express their feelings around animals,” Wolfram said. “They get real meaning taking care of animals, and the death of an animal helps prepare them for real events in their lives.”
Bittersweet Farms is currently expanding its CSA program with the help of a $116,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Two new hoop houses (similar to greenhouses) have been installed, which will allow for more year-round fresh produce. Plans are to open a commercial kitchen, update a well and expand marketing of Bittersweet’s basil pesto and possibly add another food product. Obee’s dream is to open up a u-pick farm and retail store at the Lima location.
“We try to provide as many opportunities as we can for the autistic to meet with the community, whether it’s delivering pesto to market or food to pantries,” Wolfram said. “Everything we do, we look for the meaning or motivation behind it. That’s really important.”
Forum explores human-animal bond
Bittersweet Farms’ Vickee Obee will share her stories about the human-animal bond during the annual Animals for Life Forum April 9 in Cincinnati.
Amy Beth Graves is a freelance writer from Upper Arlington.
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