“It’s can’t be much different than getting a kid ready to go to college!” I’ve heard that comment numerous times as I’ve prepared our 25-year-old son, Joel, for his move into his new home, Safe Haven Farms, a farming community for adults with autism located in Butler County.
Wrong. Sure, we all shed a few tears when we send a child off to college. But parents of children with disabilities deal with what’s called “chronic grief.” It’s not that we’re constantly grieving, but that we recycle through the grief process every time our kids hit a new developmental milestone. Moving away from the family nest is a huge milestone on this particular young man’s journey—and on this mom’s (and dad’s) journey as well.
In my grief it’s as if I’m reliving my life. One day I’m an infant, latching onto Joel’s arm so tightly that someone might have to pry my fingers off on move-in day. The next day I’m a two-year-old, who can’t make up her mind if she wants Joel to come or go. Hello! Goodbye! Hello! Goodbye! Next, I’m a teenager, chomping at the bit for a life of my own, then slinking back to ask for just a few more days with my son.
Don’t get me wrong. Safe Haven Farms is the answer to prayer. We’ve always believed our son would thrive in a farm community, and here it is, brand-spanking-new, right in our own backyard. Thanks, God! It’s a place Joel will call home for the rest of his life. He is not losing a family; he’s gaining one. He will share his beautiful new house with 3 other guys, and the farm with 16 other “farmers.”
Safe Haven is exactly what its name implies—a safe place, a serene place, with a big patch of sky and fluffy white clouds scudding along on the breeze. It is a place of acceptance and encouragement, with a staff well-trained in autism The “farmers” will be engaged in meaningful work—raising produce they will prepare for lunch and dinner, as well as sell at farmer’s markets; caring for the horses they will ride in a therapeutic riding program; feeding the sheep, alpaca and goats; getting sensory needs met in a state-of-the-art sensory room; and continuing their life-long education in the learning center. It doesn’t get much better than this!
So, why am I crying? No doubt the looming empty nest is part of my grieving. There will be a big hole left by this big lug of a guy who has required so much of our time, patience, and love. Another part of the sadness, however, is what we are leaving behind. As I mentioned earlier, Safe Haven Farms is in Butler County. For twenty-five years, Joel has received services through Hamilton County. We’ve made friends of a lifetime here.
How we will miss our friends at the Beckman Adult Center, run by the Hamilton County Board of Developmental Disabilities. Four years ago, as he neared graduation, Joel’s team didn’t think he would be capable of working without one-on-one support as an adult. Beckman proved them wrong! The top-notch staff at Beckman has played a huge role in raising Joel’s skills and confidence. Rhonda and Julius, I stand in awe!
How hard it is to say goodbye to Starfire, an awesome club for teens and adults with disabilities. Twice a month, for twelve years, Starfire has provided social and volunteer opportunities for Joel. That’s nearly 300 outings! Starfire has strengthened Joel’s social skills, introduced him to new friends, and gave him something to look forward to each and every month.
And how we will miss those Saturday mornings at Parky’s Farm, where Joel participates in Winton Wood’s therapeutic riding program. Joel has been a regular there for nearly 15 years. The volunteers in this program have done so much to raise Joel’s self-awareness, not to mention raising his joy level.
Saying goodbye is always difficult, even when what waits ahead is part of God’s plan for your life. Thanks, Rhonda, Julius, Duerk, Chris, Sandy, Gio, Tim, Lauren, Beth, Cowboy, Andrea, and all of the rest of you in Hamilton County who have played such a big part in Joel’s life and well-being over the past 25 years. Keep up the fantastic work of matching people with developmental disabilities with passionate, fun-loving, and devoted volunteers. You’ve enriched our lives beyond measure.