Newark Advocate, July 27, 2023 - Dave Weidig, Reporter
READ THE ARTICLE ON THE ADVOCATE WEBSITE HERE
JOHNSTOWN ― It was a bit of an awkward beginning, both for the students and alpacas, when the animals first came to the Learning 4 Life Farm in April.
"You had the kids staying on one side of the barn and the alpacas staying on the other," said Carmella Bojarzin, transition lead and summer camp leader for The Learning Spectrum North East school, where the 7-acre farm is located, on U.S. 62, near Johnstown. "But then it transitioned into the kids jumping right into it, putting harnesses on, petting them and walking them around."
It has also been quite the transition for the farm, which started to take shape nearly three years ago and is now ready to provide job training for teens and young adults on the autism spectrum in Licking County. The alpaca therapy program is one of the few in the world specially tailored for autism, and students also tend to diverse gardens, selling their produce and herbs, and take care of several beehives.
"It's been a real fun camp, and it's been awesome to watch the kids and alpacas grow together," Bojarzin said last week during an open house at the farm. "Alpacas (a much smaller version of the camel family) are very calm, and they have low environmental impact. It gives the kids confidence, and they take a leadership role with the alpacas.
"It's pretty cool for them, working with an animal they've never cared for and that listens to you. They stay calm, and it keeps the alpacas calm," Bojarzin said. "They loaded in the straw, and the kids do it all, from start to finish."
Ohio State University student Ayanna Williams, known as the "alpaca whisperer" at the farm, was moved to tears watching the interaction.
"I've worked with horses, and alpacas are much nicer than horses," Williams said. "It's pretty intense, seeing the kids really settle into their personalities with them. I literally cried my eyes out, watching their transformation."
Barb Kendall, of New Albany, who raised alpacas for a number of years, was at the open house, providing a different outlet for the students, and has also seen a transformation. She was spinning fiber into yarn and works with the kids felting the fiber, which enables them to eventually make things.
"They were a little hesitant at first, but then they picked it up," Kendall said. "They did real well with it. It gives them something to work on, to complete a project."
The students have also had a significant role in making the farm a therapeutic space for future students, creating organic gardens for food and putting up pollinator habitats. It enables them to develop job skills, confidence and ability to aid them in working towards employment in the community.
Learning 4 Life director of operations Amy Hurst smiles proudly when she thinks how far the farm has come. It now has a fully operational barn and shop, pastures, gardens and greenhouses.
"We now have 30 raised garden beds, and are putting up a smaller hoop house," Hurst said. "We put in a new rain garden and a bunch of pollinator gardens."
The 36-by-80-foot barn, which houses alpacas on one side and a workspace/gift shop on the other, was raised last October. Electricity, the septic system, roof and plumbing were put in, and the last steps were laying a concrete floor, drilling a well and finishing the interior, which includes a walk-in cooler and HVAC.
The last touches are being put on Phase 3, the final one for the project. It cost $137,871 and includes 5 acres of three fenced pastures for the alpacas and a 1.5-acre organic garden for cut flowers, herbs, vegetables and a pumpkin patch. The community has been extremely supportive of the venture overall. Of the $193,765 in expenses in the first two phases, $62,222 came from individuals, $52,372 from businesses and $22,621 from donated materials and services.
The rest has been provided by grants and TLS sponsorship. An Environmental Quality Incentives Program grant from USDA provided for the well, pollinator habitat strip, composting facility for (alpaca) manure and access driveway out to the barn.
Hurst said it all couldn't have been done without community support. R&L Excavating of Newark provided drainage, the driveway and placed a 1,400-foot pollinator strip, working with the Licking County Soil and Water Conservation District.
"I enjoy doing the work anyway, and to see what they're doing with it, is very satisfying," said Rodney Lothes, owner of R&L Excavating. "You can really see the progress they're making."
TASC Drywall donated insulation and materials for the barn/workshop. Board President Matt McEnery, of Westerville, vice president for MAC Construction in Worthington, partnered with the kids to put in the walls for the workshop, and they painted them. His middle son, Charlie, is on the autism spectrum.
Learning 4 Life Farm will be the fourth stop Saturday on the 14th annual Ohio Ride for Autism, and the TLS Alpaca Trot, a mile walk and run, will be held there Nov. 4. But Hurst is especially excited that the farm is ready to fulfill its main mission.
"When the school year starts, we're ready to start our job training, and we're inviting all of our local districts to partner with us," she said. "Some districts have expressed interest, working with the OOD (Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities), and we want to work with the county schools and Licking County DODD (Department of Developmental Disabilities)."
An estimated 85 percent of adults with autism are unemployed or underemployed, and only 17% live on their own.
"We really want to change those numbers," Hurst said.
We were so thrilled to bring our six alpacas to Learning 4 Life Farm in April 2023, and thanks to support from Road Runner Rascals Alpaca Ranch, our wonderful volunteers and staff, and hard work from our students, our job training and informal alpaca therapy programs are underway for youth on the autism spectrum and related disabilities, and we're looking forward to launching our Animal Assisted Alpaca Psychotherapy program this fall in partnership with The Learning Spectrum!
Our students worked hard starting in April to care for our alpacas, cleaning their barn pen and drylot, putting them out to pasture, and feeding and watering. In July the alpacas and the students were ready to begin haltering the animals themselves and walking them around our drylot. Students and visitors also love to feed the alpacas - we've got them eating out of our hands, literally, and it provides a lot of joy for both our kids and our alpacas.
Stay tuned as we begin taking our alpacas to The Learning Spectrum school sites to begin Animal Assisted Alpaca Therapy with students ages Prek-12th grade on the autism spectrum and related disabilities!