- November 25, 2015
DR. PHILLIPS For two class periods a day, students with autism and intellectual disabilities at Dr. Phillips High School muck stalls, feed livestock and care for the animals’ pasture.
It’s a daily routine that keeps the animals well cared for and provides the students with a comprehensive job to do — all while allowing them a relaxing and therapeutic outlet from the standard classroom.
The Special Hearts Farm was created at the school three years ago as an on-campus work site for students in the exceptional-student education program. It’s the first of its kind in Orange County. It’s also one of the beneficiaries of the school’s upcoming Walks 4 Autism fundraising event.
The farm is fully funded by another on-campus job the ESE students perform. Students deliver coffee and doughnuts to staff members each Friday, and throughout the week, they take orders and prepare them. Those funds alone are enough to maintain and feed the animals, as well as take care of veterinary bills.
But between the farm’s upkeep and the various activities organized by the Providing Autism Links and Support’s Young Organizers Uniting to Help club — or YOUTH PALS, a service club at the school through which students arrange fundraisers and raise awareness for autism — extra funds are always appreciated.
At the Walks 4 Autism, the club hopes to see 200 people come to support the cause. The community can enjoy a bounce house, the SHF petting zoo, slushies, games, sack races and a walk around the track.
“We want to raise money for next year, fund the SHF and hopefully fund the walk for next year,” Kennedi Martin, community outreach coordinator with PALS, said. “It’s really cool when you get new people to join (PALS) and see them learning how to deal with different behaviors.”
PALS is an organization under University of Central Florida’s Center for Autism & Related Disabilities. PALS and CARD create opportunities for individuals of all ages with autism spectrum disorders in Central Florida.
At Dr. Phillips High, 15 to 20 neurotypical students are actively involved in the school’s YOUTH PALS club. They’ve been planning the Walks 4 Autism event since November.
“All the funds will go to the SHF and will go back to our club,” Martin said. “We try to go bowling and do fun stuff with our ESE class here and go into the community with them so they can get social exposure and hang out without their parents. We try to include them in everything we can.”
SPECIAL HEARTS FARM
A joint effort between ESE teachers Kathy Meena, Jennifer Elliott and Hannah Ehrli, the farm helps provide real-life work experience to their special-needs students. The school already has an on-campus agriculture department, and the idea for the farm came when Meena saw the fascination one of her students had with the animals.
“We would take walks around the school campus, and I had one student in particular who always wanted to feed grass to the sheep and goats,” Meena said. “Then I started seeing the connection between the animals and the students. The animals are so tame and come right up to you thinking they’re dogs. It’s kind of like a therapeutic effect for both.
“The kids with autism really enjoy going and feeding the goats grass through the fence,” she said. “When I saw that, I started thinking, ‘Maybe this is something we could do as a job (for them).’”
After speaking with the agriculture teacher, who agreed to designate part of the department’s land for the farm, the teachers and volunteers from Home Depot’s “Team Depot” went to work. It took three months to build stalls from the ground up, but the farm came to life. Currently, SHF is home to two miniature horses, two sheep, two chickens and three small goats.
The students’ job consists of feeding the animals, cleaning stalls, walking and grooming the animals and any type of upkeep on the pasture. The farm and its animals are a great combination to create an outlet for energy and break from the classroom.
“They get fresh air and can run up and down the pasture if they want,” Meena said. “The animals don’t even react to it — it’s almost like they’ve learned their behaviors. It’s a really special relationship, because I’ve taken kids out there when they had a bad day, and it calms them. It’s really something neat to see.”
Contact Danielle Hendrix at [email protected]