Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Loss of a Pet

Living on a farm… death happens.  

It happens fairly often, actually.  We have five new baby chicks, and one of them drowned in the waterer last week.  One night a raccoon got into the adult hens, killed one of them and left most of its body.  Ray has lost pet mice, tropical fish, and a very long-lived crayfish.  Last year, our old goat passed away. 

But none of these events were anything like losing the family dog over Christmas week this year.  Soon afterwards, I wrote the story of his last days because the guys’ reactions were so moving.  Here it is below.

Nemo passed away yesterday.  Our old, smelly, incontinent, hairless chihuahua mutt who lived in a crate in our dining room for the past year.  No one knows how old he really was… he had been rescued from a dark basement, starving and without water… and he became part of the dog family on the hill after we read his sad story on Craigslist.

His basement experience led him to drink as much water as he could find…. hence the incontinence when the gallon of liquid moved through his tiny body.

So he lived in the crate….

But a funny thing happened. This smelly and quite unattractive creature somehow won the hearts of these guys here on the Hill. Jose always entered the house calling to Nemo, so he could hear him howl.  Michael lifted him out of the crate each evening to sit in  the rocking chair with him and tell him stories of the day. The dining room is the center of social activity, and everyone was in tune with Nemo’s needs.  ‘Nemo do you need water?’ ‘Nemo needs to go out…..get him outside quick!’ ‘Where’s Nemo, he’s been outside too long’. ‘He’s cold’.  ‘He’s hot’. ‘He’s still hungry we need to feed him more’. ‘Give him chicken’.  ‘Nemo’s at the door, someone LET HIM IN!!!!!’

Six guys with social issues, coming together over an unlikely mascot.

We all watched Nemo fade away these past weeks; he was treated with such gentleness and compassion.  And when it came time to say goodbye, everyone came together to prepare his gravesite, our first here at the house.  The guys dug a hole together, taking turns…. the goats and pigs watching from the other side of the fence.  We told our favorite Nemo stories and laid him gently down.

Then Jose howled.  And we all joined in.

And today, the day after, the guys are still howling… and visiting Nemo’s grave.  And saying how much they miss him… and giving each other HUGS for comfort.

Genuine empathy transcends all social missteps.  Social issues on hold for now.

Nemo and Kit 2010

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Autism and agricultural communities: a reason for keeping it small

So much talk this week about agricultural communities and autism… the autism blogs and listservs are buzzing about the  FRED conference that just happened in California (Farms and Ranches Enabling people with Disabilities).  There has been an overwhelming response to the conference nationwide.  It is so inspiring to see some of these long-term communities continue to grow and succeed… check out these agricultural communities of adults with autism.  Families are talking about working together with others to create their own farm for their family members.  Again and again, the talk ends up focusing on the lack of funding, the lack of support for projects like these from the very organizations that should be helping.

For those of us whose lives are affected by autism, we ‘get’ why the farmstead model is such a good option when thinking about a life of independence for many adults on the spectrum.  Tranquility.  SPACE.  Animals.  Nature.  SPACE.  The freedom to be who you are … free to hoot, jump, pace, flap, stim, and talk talk talk …. without judgement.  The freedom to CHOOSE when and how you want to interact with others.  Life on a farm does not have to be isolating, there can be many opportunities for socializing with very little effort.  But having that CHOICE to be alone when there is a need to recharge without interaction with others… that choice is priceless for many with autism.

But since the 1970’s, the movement has been towards non-congregate living for people with disabilities.  It became the accepted belief that a life mainstreamed into society was best… that the ‘least restrictive’ environment was an environment where the individual with a disability was part of a community that consisted of mainly non-disabled individuals. The pendulum had swung all the way over to that other side, and now for many years the government and other funding streams have not wanted to consider new ‘congregate’ settings (settings where non-related people live together)  as viable options for independent living.

My own personal (and very controversial) belief is that this has been extremely over-simplified… after 35 plus years working in the disability field and 15  years in housing…. I have seen many many desperately lonely people living in the ‘community’ with few friends or connections and whose families have long since let them go.  On the other hand, some of the happiest people with disabilities that I have met either live or work in fairly large congregate settings with their best friends. It really depends on the specific nature of the ‘community’ or the ‘congregate setting’, and the quality of the support people in each. It is an oversimplification to call one situation ‘good’ and the other ‘bad’.

The guys at Juniper Hill are very attached to one another, yet also very different from each other;  they share only limited interests.  And they miss each other whenever they are apart. They are also attached to the 10 or so people who come regularly to visit or help out on the farm.  They all like each other because they are wonderfully kind, interesting people, not because they are autistic.  What right do we have, as a society, to tell them that they can’t live together just because they share a diagnosis?

courtesy of Handi-crafters

At any rate, it has become evident that creating an independent living situation with as little assistance from the government as possible may be the most practical and sustainable path for the majority of families right now.  With six guys living in close proximity here on the Hill, it borders on ‘congregate living’ in some eyes, and chances are we would have to argue this point if asking for government support for the project.  Our original plan here on Juniper Hill….. to create a working farm that would provide employment and a meaningful day for a number of individuals…. has now evolved into a simple independent living situation where the people living here just  rent their home and pay most of their bills with their social security checks.  They are learning to work on a farm, and this work will at least provide them with their spending money, and hopefully more, eventually.  It is a replicable model for many families…. and that was our goal.

We haven’t done any fundraising (yet) and the farm is not a licensed facility.  However, these guys are lucky in that they do have some waiver funding that provides the support people that come in at an average of 15 hours a week for each guy. It’s not very much but it gets the shopping, laundry, cooking and cleaning done and leaves time for volunteer jobs and even some leisurely trips to the nearby University town and weekly stops at the local library. A couple of times a month, the  AALIVE organization provides some amazing fun trips. And the guy’s social circle is continually growing, with friends dropping by to help out on the farm, just because they like being here. We recently registered as a host farm with  WWOOF, an organization that links volunteers to working opportunities on farms. We see this as an excellent way to provide some of the  supports for individuals who lack funding, while at the same time providing a valuable and enriching experience for volunteers. In just two weeks, we already have a local WWOOF volunteer coming weekly, and three more scheduled for long-term stays here.

So we think that we will just stay this size…. there is still so much room for growth in other ways, and that is enough.  And we are really looking forward to sharing ideas and guiding other families through this process.  Life is Good… here on the Hill!

Entrepreneurship and Autism: goats, sunflowers and giant blankets

Cashmere Cashmere everywhere…on our clothes and in our hair…..

It’s almost time!  Yesterday, clumps of cashmere came off into our hands as we reached out for Johnny CASHmere while feeding the barn animals.  Johnny the goat has the most beautiful thick white coat of curly cashmere, and he was the first to begin shedding last year. We were unprepared for the copious amounts of billowing cashmere in the air for two weeks last spring, as we had understood that we had 6 whole months to gather the cashmere.. not so! Although cashmere goats might begin to shed in December, it is barely noticeable until it all jumps ship within a couple of short weeks in mid March. If you blink your eyes, or if it rains a lot during that time, you’ll miss it!

So we are determined to gather the cashmere this year, before it lands on the fences and branches of the trees, or in the nests of house wrens and chickadees. We have two goat stanchions now, thanks to the handiwork of Brent and Mindy….  the stanchion holds the goat still while it is groomed.  We offer them treats for standing still for us, and we’ll comb them until the cashmere is all safe inside ziplock bags.

Brent in the workshop building a goat stanchion

We have big plans for Johnny’s and the rest of the goat’s cashmere this year! We have been experimenting with felting fiber this past winter, and we are finding that the cashmere felts nicely as a first layer with a top layer of our alpaca fiber.  How does it sound to have a felted alpaca hat with an inside layer of cashmere against your temples?  We think it sounds wonderful. So along with the hats, the guys are experimenting with felted water bottle bags, felted soaps, and felted phone cases.  Add that to our 20 varieties of sunflowers, some hand-built wren bird-houses, and a variety of hot and spicy homegrown peppers, and we ‘re sure to have a fun season at local grower’s markets!

Our first attempt at a felted phone case!

Living independently with autism isn’t just about learning to cook and get along with housemates.  The employment piece is one of the most difficult to figure out.  Paying bills uses up most of the guy’s monthly social security checks, so it sure would be nice to have some spending money! Plus, it just feels good to have a job.  Unemployment among adults on the spectrum is really high.  Navigating social situations…. overcoming sensory issues … finding a job and succeeding in an interview… and convincing an employer that you are worth taking a chance on,   in spite of your differences.  It’s not easy.

No, these are not our hats. We will pick one style and give it a try!

So we decided to take the entrepreneurial approach here on the farm. Last year we grew a small field of sunflowers… 20 different varieties, about a thousand flowers.  The guys were introduced to dirt… on their hands, on their clothes… and they were introduced to sweat!… it is really humid here in Pennsylvania in the summer.  and ….  they did OK!  We cleared fields, formed raised beds, and planted  seeds in rows.  We were rewarded with a beautiful field of sunflowers, and we harvested them, cut off the leaves, put them in buckets and delivered them to friends and local businesses.

We learned that EVERYONE loves sunflowers.  Sunflowers are easy to grow.   Sunflowers are easy to harvest.  We were convinced.  This year, we’ll try succession planting so they bloom over the entire growing season, and we are tripling the size of the fields.

There are several local grower’s markets that we will approach and ask to be vendors.  The sunflowers will be our main product, but we have a good strong start on the fiber items as well. Setting up a table at a market and selling our items and meeting people is actually what the guys look forward to the most… they love to tell their stories. It’s taken a year or so for the guys to embrace this idea…. this was not the dream job for most of them.  But watching Brent and Ray, who love being outdoors, work hard and make handfuls of cash on delivery days last summer… well that was all it took!  We shall see what this year brings, but right now we are all chomping at the bit to get started.

Brent with his new blankets ready for the fair tomorrow!

Presenting at the Reinventing Quality Conference in Baltimore, with the 'Lucky Charms' blanket

We can’t end a post on entrepreneurs without talking about our most amazing entrepreneur here at Juniper Hill…. our wonderful hardworking friend, Brent. Brent has been crocheting blankets for over twenty years.  Originally, he just wanted to crochet blankets for people who would trade him for car keys, his true obsession.  But these last few years, Brent has discovered that he can actually sell his blankets for money , and it has inspired him to work harder and choose his colors more deliberately.  You can learn about Brent on his Facebook page,  Blankets by Brent.  Last year, Brent presented at the Reinventing Quality Conference in Baltimore, MD.  And tomorrow, March 3rd, Brent will be selling his blankets at the ‘Celebrate Differences Film Festival and Art Exhibit’ in Media, PA. He just crocheted six blankets in less than 3 weeks, and they are just gorgeous. He is quite excited!  Although the uncertainty of not knowing whether or not anyone will actually buy the blankets is overwhelming at times for him, he has learned, through constant reminding, that there will be another fair along soon, and more folks to buy his blankets… and a space at a Grower’s Market this spring!

Update** Brent sold every one of his blankets at the fair!  Thanks to all who came out today!!