WINTER GARDEN, Fla. – Students in special education can attend high school until the age of 22, but once they age out — they are on their own.
For many, that means sitting at home with limited options for meaningful activities.
But one Central Florida nonprofit has a solution.
Special Hearts Farm is tucked away behind a neighborhood in Winter Garden, but you would never know it from standing in the stables, surrounded by the sounds and smells of a typical farm.
Director Paul Durand slides the large barn doors open to begin the day’s activities.
“It’s not like a farm; it’s an actual farm. We’re a working farm,” Durand said with a smile. “So, there’s a lot of work to be done on any given morning.”
Work is what Special Hearts Farm is all about.
“We help develop job skills for people that are looking for a job and working on a farm is a great way to do that,” Durand said.
Every morning clients of the nonprofit make their way out of classrooms and out to the stables and pens to care for the animals, Durand said.
“They want to get out and start their day just like we do,” Durand said, as he guided participants through their chores.
Durand said what Special Hearts Farm does is certainly unique.
We want to build self esteem and animals do that,” Durand said. “Our hope is that we have a community where there are more jobs available for people with developmental disabilities, and part of what we do is to help prepare you to get a job.”
We were there as Philip Michael, 30, and Jessica Keller, 27, helped clean the stables. The brother and sister have been coming to the program since 2017 when it opened. Their mother, Lisa Schmidt, looked at several day programs for her kids before finding Special Hearts Farm.
Schmidt said her kids attended West Orange High School until they aged out.
“Not every program meets the needs and challenges of the young adults,” Schmidt said. “The minute my kids came here and listened to the animals and were out in the fresh air, meeting other peers, I knew this was the right place.”
Schmidt nominated Special Hearts Farm for the News 6 Getting Results Award.
“Philip Michael likes to do something from start to finish and see the end result,” Schmidt said. “Jessica is a different one, she loves to come here and see the animals and do the gardening. She enjoys peer relationships and the social activities.”
Back in 2014, Kathy Meena started the program when she was teaching at Dr. Philips High School. Her son also attends the program.
She remembers taking her ESE class for walks on campus, and she noticed how her class reacted to the animals being cared for by the agriculture students.
“I felt like the students helped the animals, but the animals definitely helped the students as well,” she said. “It’s a beautiful relationship.”
Meena said their mission is simple.
“We just want to provide individuals with disabilities a meaningful day,” Meena said.
The nonprofit partners with Orange County Public Schools, Meena said, so students in school can work along side older participants in the nonprofit.
“They eventually age out when they turn 22,” she said. “And if they don’t have enough work skills or independent skills to get a job and — this is important — to keep a job. Because so many of them will end up getting a job, (but) keeping the job, that’s the hard part.”
Durand said, for most parents, allowing children to grow and move on can come quickly and easily, but that isn’t always the case for parents of students with intellectual disabilities.
“Sometimes it takes a lot longer, if you have a developmental difference, to move on to something that’s next for them,” Durand said.
For Schmidt, raising children who are different is a fulfilling experience.
“To be a parent of a special needs child is an experience of really truly understanding what it is to be here on Earth and loving,” Schmidt said. “To care for others, to protect, and enjoy all the milestones along the way.”
Schmidt said her kids’ success at Special Hearts Farm has been one of those milestones. She never imagined they would become farm hands.
“I didn’t, but I know they enjoy being outside,” Schmidt said laughing. “They come home really dirty, but you know what? They come home filled with self-esteem.”
The community is encouraged to visit the farm’s general store.
The farm produces and sells products such as goat milk soap, rustic signs, fresh eggs and hosts farm events and goat yoga.
Special Hearts Farm is hosting their fourth annual Boots, Wine and Dine Under the Stars fundraising event Dec. 5 2021.
Volunteer opportunities are also available.