Gathering supplies in the tool shed at Frankfort’s Navarro Farm, the small group talked excitedly amongst themselves.
One man made the rounds, giving hugs and pointing to where a bee had previously landed on his forehead.
Group leader Amy Stanislawski announced their first activity: picking tomatoes.
Grabbing their tools and towing a wagon for their haul, the group set out on their adventure, passing the vineyard and small orchard of apple, pear, peach and plum trees, making their way down the stone pathway to the 84 planting beds, where they’d get to work harvesting vegetables and pulling weeds.
The farm was humming with activity. Nearby, five Nigerian dwarf goats darted around their pen while nearly 40 chickens clucked from their coop.
Sherri Navarro, who owns the farm with her husband, Damion, looked around the 5-acre property, still amazed at the transformation.
Last September, the couple purchased the farm intending to tear down the barn and erect a pole barn for their company, NES Environmental. That plan was quickly scratched.
A friend suggested they plant a communal garden for special needs kids. The Navarros’ 17-year-old son, Carter, was born with Down syndrome, and the Navarros recognized the potential benefits of such a project.
And then a light bulb went off for Sherri.
“I said, ‘Damion! A place to grow!’”
The phrase, which ultimately became their slogan, meant not only a place to grow food, but to grow friendships and learning experiences for those with special needs.
“And we took that idea and started running — and haven’t stopped,” Sherri said.
Today, the nonprofit provides a farming experience for children and young adults with special needs. Through the farming program, visitors, who are called “farmers,” plant and harvest all the food grown, including peppers, onions, eggplant, pumpkins, fruit and much more. They care for the goats and chickens and harvest eggs. All the food is either sold at their farm stand, Carter’s Corner, or donated to local restaurants. Bee boxes have also been installed for honey, and Avery’s Flower Farm grows and cuts flowers in a garden on the property.
The project is a big endeavor for a couple with no farming experience.
But through word of mouth and the generosity of volunteers — many of whom are former special education teachers, occupational therapists, farmers and master gardeners — the program and offerings continue to grow.
Kim Warning’s son, Steven, is part of the program, which she said has been “amazing” for her son’s socialization skills.
“I’ve never seen him so invested in a place,” she said from inside the renovated barn that also serves as a break room — complete with a full-size arcade game, craft supplies and tables.
Program Coordinator June Hoops dubbed Warning one of the “core moms” who’s always willing to lend a hand.
“When you have someone doing anything for your kid and making their life better, you’ll do anything for them,” Warning said. “It’s like a family here.”
The farming program is offered a couple times a week, with two sessions a day. The program is open to those 14 and older with special needs. Participants must meet certain criteria, which can be found online at navarrofarm.org.
Because transition services and programs for students receiving special education typically end at age 22, Navarro Farm, located at 22155 S. 104th Ave., offers a unique experience for those who otherwise wouldn’t have many opportunities to socialize.
Aside from the farming experience, participants also make crafts and play sports. Kickball is their favorite. And on Friday nights, the farm often offers social events such as barbecues and movie nights.
Monthly events, including a Fall Harvest Party, Friendsgiving and Visit with Santa, are planned through the year. The major fundraiser — the Navarro Farm Gala — was Oct. 9. For more information on the events, visit the Navarro Farm Facebook page.
Seeing the impact the farm has had in just a short time, the Navarros hope to expand — not just their program offerings but the farm itself. Plans are in the works for a greenhouse so the farmers can continue growing and harvesting through the winter. One day, the couple hopes to build housing at the farm for those with special needs, complete with bike paths and other amenities, creating a community for the residents.
“There’s endless opportunity,” Sherri said.
This story was distributed through a cooperative project between Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Press Association. For more food and farming news, visit FarmWeekNow.com.