As Learning 4 Life Farm grows, autistic students already blooming
Dave Weidig, Newark Advocate, July 28, 2022; Columbus Dispatch Sunday, August 14, 2022
JOHNSTOWN — The alpacas are coming! The alpacas are coming!
The Learning 4 Life Farm, located at The Learning Spectrum (TLS) North East education center near Johnstown, is steadily building to full completion after two years. And getting the therapy animals next January means the seven-acre facility, also featuring gardens, is one step closer to providing job training for teens and young adults on the autism spectrum.
"The alpacas are easier to take care of, and they're good for therapeutic training and therapy," Learning 4 Life Farm director of operations Amy Hurst said during last year's barn raising event. "The kids really like the animals, and they've been making trips to nearby alpaca farms."
"Once we get the alpacas, we want to bring in students from other local school districts," Hurst said last week during a summer open house which updated the community on progress. "We just got an EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) grant from USDA for the well, pollinator habitat strip, composting facility for (alpaca) manure, and access driveway out to the barn."
The 36x80 foot barn, which will house alpacas on one side and a work space/gift shop on the other, was raised in October. During the winter and spring, electricity, the septic system, roof and plumbing were put in. The last steps are a concrete floor, drilling a well and finishing the interior, which will include a walk-in cooler and HVAC.
Phase 3, the final one for the project, costs $137,871, and also includes five 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 to date, $62,222 has come from individuals, $52,372 from businesses and $22,621 from donated materials and services. The rest has been provided by grants and TLS sponsorship.
"The Jeff Robinson family sold a vintage Porsche and donated the money to us, which paid for our septic system," Hurst said. "That was amazing, very generous, and numerous other foundations and sponsors have chipped in."
A hoop house has been built for growing flowers and vegetables the year around, and is USDA-equipped with raised beds.
Phase 1 of the project, completed in fall of 2020, was funded with $25,000 in donations from community members and includes the driveway, elevated barn pad, drainage and bio retention rain garden. A fruit, vegetable, herb and flower garden is taken care of by high school, middle school and younger students and has been expanded to 2,500 square feet. Two beehives were also added to the property.
During last week's open house, flowers, vegetables and herbs were for sale that were grown by the students. They have strengthened their job and life skills by watering, weeding and harvesting vegetables, cutting and and arranging flowers, building the raised garden beds in the hoop house, and learning beekeeping.
"They have all independently thrived and developed their skills," said TLS North East high school teacher Carmella Bojarzin of Newark. "They enjoy taking home the vegetables which came out of their skills. We're giving them the training they need to go into the world, and we work on their social skills. They understand money and taxes."
"They're excited for the community to be here and see what they're doing," said Kelly Kinnear of Mount Vernon, a para-professional at TLS North East middle school. "They've learned to make bouquets, and they love making soap. The students built the bee boxes and painted them, and the ones who were comfortable with it, got involved with the beekeeping. This really helps them build confidence, and they're doing more in the classroom, learning interviewing skills."
The TLS board of directors is delighted to see the progress of the students, and excited for what the future holds for them. Learning 4 Life Farm is looking to put a big dent in statistics that say 85 percent of young adults with autism are unemployed or underemployed. It hopes to launch its full job training program next year.
Board member Matt McEnery of Westerville works for MAC Construction in Worthington. His middle son, Charlie, is on the autism spectrum.
"I started working with Jill Medley (TLS executive director), building projects in Canal Winchester, and I was blown away working with her," McEnery said. "I wanted to see what I could do to assist, and Jill invited me to become a board member."
At Learning 4 Life Farm, McEnery and MAC Construction have given advice and provided materials, time and labor. They have helped with the barn construction, the raised gardens, the planning of the pastures, and even adding modular classrooms for TLS North East School.
"The Learning Spectrum is growing like crazy," McEnery said. "It's something that is needed in Central Ohio."
Angela Ramos-Fields of Columbus originally got Spectrum communications involved with Learning 4 Life through a grant when she was employed there. Now part of IBM network services through Kyndryl, she aims to do the same with her new company.
"I'm still actively involved as (TLS) board vice president, and I want to make them (IBM) aware of the plan and really get them involved," she said. "My son is 21 and attended The Learning Spectrum in Columbus, so it's a decades long relationship and I want to support all of their endeavors."
"I envision a lot more coming out of this (Learning 4 Life Farm) initiative," Ramos-Fields said. "The farm gives them the work attributes they will need. It polishes up their skills so they can live their most fulfilled lives."