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Published: Monday, 10/10/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

Farm program helps disabled gain skills

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE STAFF WRITER
St. Isidore’s 20 alpacas are a favorite with clients, who also care for the horses, bunnies, and ducks. St. Isidore’s 20 alpacas are a favorite with clients, who also care for the horses, bunnies, and ducks.
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MONROE -- Alabama native Keith Lewis grew up around Dutch and Dan, the horses his father used while logging.

So watering horses and alpacas, cleaning out their stalls, and doing other chores at St. Isidore Farm near Monroe is a natural fit for the developmentally disabled 54-year-old.

"I love to work with animals," said Mr. Lewis, who lives in Monroe but retains his Southern drawl. "I'd rather get on a horse that bucks instead of one that rides."

Helping people with special needs advance job and social skills is the goal of St. Isidore Farm, which got its start five years ago with three disabled participants and a job coach from Goodwill Industries of Southeastern Michigan.

Farm owners Mark and Denise Vinciguerra, whose 24-year-old disabled daughter, Renee, has long enjoyed therapeutic horse riding, wanted their daughter and her friends to have a worthwhile place to spend time since jobs are hard to come by.

"They have nothing to do -- there's nothing for them to do," said Mr. Vinciguerra, who heads up local mortgage firm Northern Ohio Investment Co. with his brother Ralph. "There's no purpose. There's no sense of accomplishment."

Now about 75 disabled children and adults go every week to St. Isidore, where Goodwill oversees services and provides staff. Another partner, Helping Hands of Monroe, assists with funding for supplies such as knitting machines for participants to use.

Some farm participants are from Monroe County Intermediate School District, including its Transition Center, where disabled people aged 18 to 26 receive training to help them live in the community. Some come from Monroe Community Mental Health, and some participants such as Mr. Lewis -- who has become a mentor at the farm for other disabled people -- work there on a regular basis.

"This is a great thing," Susan Kaiser, service coordinator for Goodwill in Monroe, said last week during one of her periodic visits. "I just like to watch Keith. He loves it. He told me the other day he'd just sleep here."

Mrs. Vinciguerra, who developed the farm's program, volunteers to work with participants daily.

Alex Bruce gets help with his work boots from his job coach Heather Riley as he starts his day of work at St. Isidore Farm in Monroe. The farm helps people with special needs advance their job and social schools through working with the animals and gathering crops. Alex Bruce gets help with his work boots from his job coach Heather Riley as he starts his day of work at St. Isidore Farm in Monroe. The farm helps people with special needs advance their job and social schools through working with the animals and gathering crops.
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Getting exercise while learning skills is one benefit of the farm, where it doesn't matter if participants do every task correctly or take all day to perform one chore, the Vinciguerras and Goodwill's Ms. Kaiser agreed.

Jenna Gimesky, 22, of Dundee is a Transition Center client who enjoys the farm.

"I like to work with the horses and the alpacas the most, and the bunny rabbits and the ducks a little bit," Miss Gimesky said. "The horses and the alpacas are friendly. After you clean their stalls, you can pet them."

Fellow Transition Center client Travis Gillum, 21, of Lambertville, least enjoys working with the farm's ducks, except to help collect their eggs. The best chore is working with the alpacas, he explained while cleaning a horse stall.

"I like working with the alpacas, especially Arthur, because, of course, he's our favorite," he said of the first alpaca born at the farm.

St. Isidore's horse barn has a training ring where disabled people can work with the seven horses and 20 alpacas, and there are rooms for watching training videos, learning about farming, and crafting. There are picnics, parties, games, hay rides, and other social activities for participants too.

The 75-acre farm that follows organic practices also has two acres of tomatoes, pumpkins, and other produce that are sold on Tuesdays at the Monroe Farmer's Market.

St. Isidore Farm got its start five years ago with three
clients and a coach. St. Isidore Farm got its start five years ago with three clients and a coach.
THE BLADE/LISA DUTTON Enlarge | Buy This Photo
And St. Isidore is beginning to sell alpaca yarn and knitted items at Goodwill's Life Skills Center for Independent Living, 15515 South Dixie Hwy., Monroe, where participants will learn how to work with customers, do inventory, and offer items on eBay.

This year, the farm became home to a 4-H club for youngsters with special needs, and two more clubs are being formed. That could lead to participants learning how to can produce, some of which could be sold. Connections with weavers and others in the community also are yielding chances for participants to gain other skills.

The next big item on St. Isidore's list is getting a mill to turn alpaca fiber from the farm and other locations into yarn, resulting in more jobs for disabled people. Now it takes eight or nine months for St. Isidore to get its fiber milled elsewhere, Mrs. Vinciguerra said.

Contact Julie M. McKinnon at: jmckinnon@theblade.com or 419-724-6087.



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