By Josh Sweigart, Staff Writer Updated 2:05 AM Sunday, June 20, 2010
MADISON TWP. — Here they’re not clients. They’re not patients. They’re farmers.
They have a purpose.
That is why Connie and Larry Proctor were finally comfortable with moving their 27-year-old son Adam — who has severe autism — out of their home and into Safe Haven Farms in May.
He was one of the first residents at the farm: a group of new homes on a former horse ranch in Madison Twp. soon to also house an activity center, garden and other amenities.
Adam is now the farm’s unofficial mailman.
“His job is to go down to the mailbox every day and then he brings the mail back to the houses,” Connie said.
Along with other residents, he also feeds the sheep, and has a number of activities he can be involved in. They’re not huge responsibilities, but they add a richness to the lives of the residents.
“I (like) the functional activities — activities that seem to have meaning: growing food and then eating the food,” she said.
The farm was purchased in November and buildings are still brand new or being built. It’s only the seventh of its kind in the country, and the second in Ohio.
It shouldn’t be unique, according to those behind the nonprofit Safe Haven Farms. After the initial hurdles of the donations and energy needed to build the farm, it will function with the same government funding used to put individuals with disabilities in group homes.
But it is unique. Connie Proctor said there was “no way” they could have gotten her son into one of the other farm homes. “There was like a waiting list over 100 years,” she said, adding that’s not an exaggeration.
In addition to giving her son purpose, the secluded farm gives autistic adults — many of whom are stressed by confusion and loud noise — peace and quiet.
And for parents who have spent decades worrying about the fate of their disabled children once they’re gone, it gives peace of mind. Connie said she brings Adam back to their house to visit several times a week.
“Every time we see him he is very happy. Each time when we say are you ready to go back to the farm, he’s ready,” she said. “If he’s happy, we can be happy.”
Safe Haven Farms being built on a former ranch in Madison Twp.
“We’re the parents that can’t die,” said Craig Moon.
For 26 years, Moon and his wife have provided for every need of their daughter, Adria, who has severe autism. They weren’t comfortable leaving her in a home or facility.
“These are our babies,” he said. “These are our children. We want to do what’s right and what’s best.”
But the Moons know they won’t be around forever, and worried about what would happen to “Addie” when they were gone.
They became involved in the project to build Safe Haven Farms, a farm home for autistic adults on a 60-acre former horse ranch in Madison Twp.
It’s unlike anything else in the county: A miniature subdivision of homes, surrounded by a farm and woods with trails, and soon to boast a 9,000-square-foot activities building, horse arena and sports facilities. Someday they hope to add an indoor pool.
“What better place could you want?” Moon said.
Farm is self-sustaining
With only six buildings housing four “farmers” each, the farm will fill up fast. Since the goal is to keep it serene, there are no plans to expand the operation.
But organizers say the impact on the community will be larger.
The project will create more than 50 jobs in Butler County. The day center will serve several autistic adults in the community who don’t live on the farm. And organizers hope to offer therapeutic riding to children and adults alike with developmental disabilities.
Dennis Rogers, volunteer president of Safe Haven farms, said his dream is for the farm to become a model home for adults with autism.
“It’s an underserved population, substantially,” Rogers said. “We hope to be a model for future homestead communities.”
The hard part is building it, he said.
Construction is being funded with roughly $1.7 million in private donations and a bank loan of roughly the same amount. Plus, an army of volunteers from General Electric — which Rogers retired from — a few Eagle Scouts and other community members helped out.
But once it’s up and running, it will be sustained with the same Medicaid waivers and Social Security benefits used to pay for housing and care at group homes or facilities.
With autism rates ballooning in America — roughly one in 110 children born with the disability, by some estimates — Rogers said “we don’t have the ability to serve the adults we have now.”
'It’s just a home’
Patrick O’Lenick could be the most welcoming person alive.
“Hello!” he says, arm outstretched. “How are you?”
Then, 30 seconds later: “Hello! How are you?”
O’Lenick, who is in his 40s, is one of the farm’s first residents. He roams freely around the farm — supervised by care provider Jenni Hubbard — and loves feeding the sheep.
Hubbard said she has worked in homes before, but nothing like the farm.
“They have freedom to walk around if they want to walk around,” she said. “They’re treated like you and I would want to be treated, and they’re given the opportunities you or I would want.”
Care at the farm is provided by Cincinnati-based Residential Management Services. The workers specialize in autism.
Ashley Cartell, RMS director at the farm, said autism comes in many forms — “If you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism,” she said — but there are common threads workers must know.
These include being drawn to structured routines, relying on visual stimulation and problems with sensory overload.
This describes Rogers’ 30-year-old daughter Emily, whose quality of life at a Middletown group home was worrying him. She has trouble with crowded, loud situations.
“Her world kind of evolved into staying in the basement of her house in Middletown watching videos all day,” he said.
At Safe Haven, Rogers is hopeful she can have a richer life. She can still sit in her room if she likes, but she lives in a house with features specially designed for autistic adults — extra security, built-in shelving, added soundproofing.
And if she decides to leave, she can interact with the animals or walk to the activities center, and come home when she’s ready.
“It’s just a home,” he said, which makes it much more than that.
Contact this reporter at (513) 820-2175 or [email protected]