Students with autism thrive on local farm, turned classroom

Just ask Adam. “If you don’t put up an artificial tree, come down to Willow Farms, Olmsted Falls and buy a Christmas tree,” he proudly said when we met him this week.

Adam, who is 17, has been coming to Willow Farms since it opened this school year.

“Willow Farms is a program here in Olmsted Falls. We are an extension of Step Academy, which is a non-public charter located in Parma. We have students that are coming up into their adolescent years, and we are really looking forward to a chance for them to get out of the classroom and do something more meaningful,” explained Hollee Anderson, Willow Farms Director.

One of the program’s main goals is to demystify autism while showcasing the unlimited potential of its students.

Adam, who enjoys classical piano, says the school has transformed his life. “It’s been a dramatic change from a building with fluorescent lights and enclosed rooms. There’s a lot of open spaces to be outside with animals and hands-on work. Now I can’t wait to go to school. On Thanksgiving break, I wanted to come back here. I don’t like being away from her too much because it feels like a family or a community here,” he said.

Seventeen students attend Willow Farms each day from 8:15 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. They do class work and life skills in the farmhouse but also learn vocational skills outside.

“I look at the whole entire farm as a classroom. If they are in the house we are working on functional skills in the house. Whether it’s self-care or cooking, it’s the things that help get them prepared for when they leave here so that they have all the skills they need,” Anderson said adding,”On a day like today they would either be up in the horse barns, everybody has their own set of things that they can do up there. It may be grooming or riding the horses.”

Students Emily and Lizzie have been drawn to the chicken coop.

“I am always excited. I can’t wait to come here. I’m just ready and pumped to come to the chickens,” said Emily. Cleaning the coop, feeding the chickens and collecting eggs is all part of their experience. “The eggs we collect every day, are different colors. Sometimes they are green, blue, white, tan, pink or brown,” Lizzie added.

Jennifer Might, the owner of Willow Farms, says most of the students who attend school at the farm had negative experiences in more traditional classrooms.  ” I  just think it’s so therapeutic here. It’s relaxing. The kids have a lot of opportunities to engage in a lot of sensory ideas when they are just outside and in the woods.  It just provides a setting where their nervous systems can just come down and de-escalate. And just relax,” Might said.

“I’ve made friends here I never thought I would make,” said Adam.

Willow Farms is at 7513 Lewis Road in Olmsted Falls.

Hours for its Christmas Tree Sale are:

  • Monday – Thursday 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
  • Friday 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
  • Saturday – Sunday: 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.

Handmade holiday crafts are also available.

All proceeds go right back into the Willow Farms program.
© 2017 WKYC-TV

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