Laura and Jim Sniff have long known the benefits of a day in the country for their cognitively disabled son, so the Chillicothe couple is doing everything they can to share that joy with other special needs kids and adults.
The couple own Blue Ridge Community Farm, a nonprofit working farm in Chillicothe that offers field trips, camping and hiking opportunities for special needs people and their families. Soon they plan to offer employment and learning opportunities for adults with special needs, as well.
“Our philosophy is we want to be a place where all abilities are celebrated,” Laura Sniff said. “We want to look past that disability and focus on the abilities of the individual.”
The Sniff family, which includes 18-year-old son Jimmy and 16-year-old daughter Allison, have owned the farm for 15 years but only started living there five years ago. Prior to that they lived in the Dunlap area and brought their son’s classmates to the farm for field trips each fall.
“We always had teachers and parents tell us that was the best field trip the class had ever been on,” Sniff said. “My husband and I would kind of look at each other and think: Wow, we didn’t do that much. Just a hayrack ride and a trip around the farm. But they felt it was so calming in the country for their children, and it was a place they could just be themselves and the teachers and parents didn’t have to worry about people staring or that sort of thing.”
Prior to the birth of their son Jimmy, who has autism and significant cognitive impairment, the Sniffs had no experience with special needs children or adults.
“It was a new world with not a lot of instructional books or road maps,” Sniff said. “As our son grew and we started looking toward the future, we realized there aren’t a lot of options for adults with special needs.”
The Sniffs then learned about a place in Texas called Down Home Ranch, which is a working ranch for adults
with special needs founded by the parents of a child with Down Syndrome. They also researched the Share Foundation in northwest Indiana that serves the residential, vocational and social needs of mentally challenged or other-abled adults at its 185-acre facility.
After visiting and volunteering at the Down Home Ranch and a Share Foundation camp, the couple decided to turn their land into a working farm for special needs children and adults.
“I feel like God kept putting these things in our path, and we really started to realize that
we have 245 acres on our family farm and we need to use it not only to help our son with his future but also all these families and children we’ve met through the years,” Sniff said.
“Our ultimate goal is to be a self-sustaining working farm that offers employment for adults with special needs in a rural environment and increased learning opportunities for adults and also children,” she added.
In the meantime, the farm welcomes about 700 special
needs children and adults for field trips each year in the spring, summer and fall.
“We try to make the field trips as educational as possible. We talk about the animals’ care, the crops we grow on the farm—soybeans and corn—and what those are used for,” Sniff said. “In the last two years we’ve acquired 10 alpacas, four donkeys, 10 chickens, a horse and a golden retriever farm dog.”
Sniff said parents and teachers are sometimes nervous on their first trip to the farm because they don’t know what to expect.
“We want them to feel like they’re in a place where their children and adults can just be themselves,” Sniff said. “It is, I think, a very welcoming and happy atmosphere.”
The farm also hosts social events for special needs adults.
“Socialization kind of drops off after high school, so a lot of (special needs) adults end up sitting at home with their aging parents and watching TV,” Sniff said. “So we have campfire singalongs and an annual square dance in the fall. The first year we had 50 at the square dance, and the second year we had 175. It was so much fun.”
Blue Ridge Community Farm relies on private donations, as well as volunteer support. Volunteers have helped build picnic tables and helped clear and maintain the farm’s 2 ½ miles of trails. Recently, volunteers helped erect the first frame of three hoop houses that will be part of a summer garden program for special needs adults.
Future plans include possibly opening a gift shop where items produced on the farm can be sold by people with special needs. The Sniffs also hope to eventually hire special needs adults to sell produce at the farm and at local farmer’s markets.
They are expecting to hire their first special needs employee this summer to do lawn care and help with the animals.
“We have a lot going on, and it’s really exciting because there’s not a rural option in the area for adults with special needs where they can work and learn different skills,” Sniff said.
For more information, visit the farm’s website at www.blueridgecommunityfarm.org or its Facebook page. To schedule a field trip or other visit to the farm or to volunteer, email Laura Sniff at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at (309) 249-2499.