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Cultivating Community

AACORN Executive Director Mary Pickett, left, with board members Dr. Liz Farner and Cindy Semark.
After 11 years, AACORN is growing strong

Just as it takes many seasons for an acorn to become a mighty oak, AACORN’s evolution has been many years in the making.

AACORN, an acronym for Adult Agricultural Community Options for Residential Needs, was formed in 2001 by several area parents and Dr. Liz Farner, a pediatrician and mental health care provider, to create a therapeutic farm program for adults with autism and other developmental differences.

“My son was having issues with the day program he was in, and when he got to be too aggressive, I had to start thinking, ‘What else could I do or what else could be done?’” says Cindy Semark, AACORN board president and one of the original founding board members.

Semark knew of a therapy farm environment in Ohio for adults like her son Jeremiah, who had autism and intellectual differences, and she knew that Farner was already engaged in doing farm therapy in Southwest Michigan. Along with other parents of adult children with developmental differences, Semark and Farner formed the core group that created AACORN.

AACORN is focused specifically on adults because support for children with developmental differences dries up after they leave high school, says Farner.

“We really want to work with adults. The kids get so much support, and by 18 it starts to decrease and then by 26 it’s gone,” she says.

That mission is what attracted Mary Pickett, who became the organization’s executive director in December. “I am all in because it is an unmet need and is one that too many people don’t think about,” says Pickett. “People think they have kids and they grow up and they go to college and they get married, but they don’t think about that sector of the population that continues to need to rely on their family or other people.”

Expanding focus

AACORN started small, first renting space at Tillers International, a teaching farm near Scotts, but it outgrew that space quickly. “We then went to Lake Village Homestead, which had 200 acres on Long Lake (in Portage) and goats, cows and pigs. We rented space from them for a long time, but we were in a very small basement room,” says Farner. “So then when Tillers said they were selling property, we jumped on it and we bought the property.”

AACORN had three participants when it began. Today it has more than 30 who come on a regular basis. One of those participants, Tom Pinto, has been coming every day since it started 11 years ago.

Semark says AACORN started with an emphasis on providing services for people on the autism spectrum but has expanded its mission to allow “others who struggle with a lot of stimuli and need a quieter atmosphere, smaller group sizes and a slower pace.”

This quieter atmosphere is one of the reasons that AACORN appeals to its participants, says Pickett. “Many of the participants have sensory-related differences that can make loud areas or large groups uncomfortable.

“Not only does it address their individual need for things to not be so busy and loud, but,” Pickett says, then motions around, “it’s 50 degrees today and you’ve got the participants just walking at their own pace and doing what they want.”

Not everyone has the same needs when it comes to programs like AACORN, notes Farner, who says that other existing adult programs tend to be more workshop-style, with many participants at one time.

“It’s just not the option that our participants needed,” says Farner, who is currently the vice president of the AACORN board of directors. “We filled a little niche that needed to be filled. There needs to be a lot more programs like ours because we can’t expand to include all the people that are in the area that probably need our services, because then our participants wouldn’t feel comfortable here.”

Participants raise animals such as goats, pigs and chickens and grow vegetables and flowers. Products they make from what they raise, such as goat milk soap, spice mixes and salsa, are sold to visitors and local neighbors.

“The thing about farming chores or tasks is that, especially with animals, they’re very routine and you need to do it every day. And that really resonates well with our participants, who like a routine and want some meaning and purpose,” says Semark.

At the same time, participants are also exposed to the activities of daily living, like cooking, shopping and cleaning.

“They get a wide range of things that they’re exposed to here. We’re currently partnered with Tillers, helping them do some cleaning in exchange for blacksmithing classes,” Farner says.

Not only do the participants reap the benefits of working at AACORN, they also get out into the community by volunteering at Loaves and Fishes and working at the Richland Farmers Market. And AACORN hosts community volunteers, including students from local colleges and universities and from corporations such as Stryker and Pfizer.

AACORN plans to add on-site residences for the participants to live in long-term.

“That is still a bit in the future,” says Semark, “but we have the property and we just need more people on our planning committee. We do have drawings drawn up, and we hope to move that along within this year and years to come. It’ll be set up so that they can age here.”

“That’s the dream,” agrees Farner.

Jarret Whitenack

An intern at Encore, Jarret hails from Oregon, where he recently graduated from Portland State University with a degree in history.

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