Down long stretches of winding country roads, about an hour northeast of Charlotte in a small corner of Stanly County, lies 39 spacious acres of farmland that has attracted visitors from the likes of Japan, Denmark and Germany, not to mention, the United States.
Like most sizeable farms, this one sustains a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, supplying 48 weekly shares of pesticide-free produce and fresh-cut flowers to families in the surrounding areas. The farm is home to goats and hundreds of chickens, delivers fresh produce and eggs to local farm-to-table restaurant, Off the Square, and supplies farm fresh goods to a local market.
Yet, this is no ordinary farm.
This is Carolina Farms, a nationally acclaimed program for individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder where the operations are fully sustained by the autistic individuals who live and work on the property.
I arrived early one morning to find a group already hard at work in front of the iconic red barn that Olivieri has become its landmark. Peace and serenity permeated the morning air. I was greeted by John Fields, Director of Carolina Farms, who was outfitted camp counselor style in khaki shorts and work boots and whose stature bore a slight resemblance to Robert Irvine, the imposing chef from Food Network’s Dinner: Impossible. He led me into the potting shed to wait for the arrival of Dean Mullis, Agricultural Specialist and Beth Olivieri, Chief Development Officer who were also joining us for a tour.
Inside the building, I sat at a table and watched Kurt, a resident of Carolina Farms, carry out one of the many tasks that help to sustain the farm. Kurt hunched over the sink and washed the eggs, gently rocking and smiling to himself as he methodically took the eggs, one by one, from a bucket to be washed to an egg carton for delivery.
“Our residents carry out all aspects in planting, farm care and harvesting,” says Beth Olivieri.
In addition to washing the eggs, the residents at Carolina Farms tend to watering the property, feeding the chickens, collecting eggs and helping out in the garden. They are led by TEACHH (Treatment and Education for Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children) principles, a part of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Medical School and guided by the agricultural expertise of Dean Mullis, owner of Laughing Owl Farm who oversees the layout and farming practices for Carolina Farms.
The program, which employs five individuals for the CSA program and houses seventeen permanent residents, seeks to provide individuals with a serene setting where they can find meaningful work and activities to foster their best life.
“It is said that, for autistic individuals, English is their second language and they don’t have a first,” said John Fields.
Many of the individuals that arrive on the farm have had challenges in other environments where individualized care is not the norm. Some individuals have been unable to work in a public job setting where noise and harsh lights may trigger challenging behaviors while others are classified as low-functioning individuals prior to life on the farm.
Olivieri stressed the importance of the “person-centered” approach at Carolina Farms and has seen those same individuals, classified as low-functioning or challenging, lead fulfilling, independent lives.
“One of the most rewarding things,” says Olivieri, “is being able to see an individual flourish, to be content and happy.”
At Carolina Farms, the staff focuses on supportive services that hone in on the individual allowing them to reach their highest potential. “It’s not one size fits all,” says Olivieri.
Behind one of the four group homes situated on the property, near the multi-purpose track, I noticed a bunch of rocks set inside a sand box structure. Olivieri tells me that box was built specifically for a resident that finds comfort in picking up rocks. This type of gesture, to fulfill such a specific need for one individual, is what sets Carolina Farms apart and it is seen in all aspects of life on the farm.
“Individuals with autism want meaningful work,” says Olivieri, “they want to make a living just like the rest of us.”
As I toured the property, it was evident that Carolina Farms is providing a supportive environment that goes above and beyond the normal spectrum of care for individuals with autism and that the meaningful work established here is sustaining a full scale farm operation, nourishing real families and community. More than that, Carolina Farms is nourishing the spirit of those who live and work there.
Carolina Farms has been recognized for its individualized support and innovative techniques when it comes to treating individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. They recently won the Audrey I. Horn Memorial Award from the Autism Society which recognizes excellence in servicing individuals with autism. For more information on Carolina Farms and ways to get involved, visit ghaautismsupports.org