Story by Kayla Bott | Photos by Mandi Joy Dowling
Nestled in the mountains of Cullowhee is a revolutionary therapy center called Full Spectrum Farms (FSF). This nonprofit group started by Margaret Oren and Jean Alvarez works to assist those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in learning useful trades, developing social skills and building personal relationships within the safety and familiarity of a natural setting. “There is something in being outside, working the land and being with animals that touches us all—neurotypical or autistic,” says FSF director Erin McManus.
Whether gardening, crafting, harvesting vegetables or simply being outdoors with others, everyone benefits from spending time on the farm. Clients receive paychecks for work they do, which includes profits from crafts and produce sold onsite, at the local farmer’s market and online. For many, this is a regular accomplishment to be proud of and look forward to. FSF always allows participants to progress at their own pace, maximizing comfort while working to meet the long-term goals of every client.
“I have witnessed nonverbal clients become verbal and clients that hadn’t been outside in years grow to find comfort in walking miles every day,” says McManus. “Whether it be receiving a driver’s license, getting a job, living independently or succeeding in a class, what I’m most proud of is the joy that everyone has in being here.”
An estimated one in every 68 Americans has ASD, which can often be associated with difficulties in communication and social interactions. Norman West, FSF board president, has realized though his own experiences that people with ASD can be easily misunderstood, but through understanding and compassion, can also be reached.
“Our classes used to be as quiet as a library and now sometimes they can sound like we’re hosting a fraternity party! These are the kinds of amazing things that make what we do worthwhile,” says West. He has also seen not only clients’ but volunteers’ lives transform, even students changing their university studies to reflect a focus on pursuing a life of working with those with ASD.
Through work with Western Carolina University (WCU) the farm has expanded its services to providing counseling and training programs for clients, their family members, students and volunteers. Training programs aim to educate volunteers on the best ways to meet clients’ needs with care while understanding the potential difficulties of living with ASD and the neurology of the disorder.
“A workshop requested by several clients was How to Behave When Eating Out,” says Dr. Mickey Randolph of WCU, FSF board secretary and advisor to the graduate student program hosted at the farm. “The students actually prepared a dinner and role played throughout; it went so well that they asked to do it again.” FSF and WCU plan to continue building this relationship as its positive impacts on the community are readily apparent.
“The best part of the farm is that my sons can be themselves without judgment,” says Jane Coburn, the mother of two clients who have regularly spent time at FSF. “They can participate in activities at whatever level they are capable of and they will be accepted. They gain self confidence and a sense of pride from these activities.” Her sons have made new friends while spending time gardening and making art.
Additional funding is needed for FSF to physically expand as well as finance new projects such as the recent addition of day programs for children with ASD and the founding of a residential program and building. FSF is always looking to accept new volunteers, clients, donations and grants.
“I have a profound belief in what we are doing here,” says McManus. “I look forward to seeing the farm’s programming diversify and grow so that we can serve a larger population and become an even better resource for professionals, families and clients.”
FSF is located at 1185 Wayehutta Road in Cullowhee. For more information on the farm’s services, events and how to volunteer, call 828.293.2521 or visit fullspectrumfarms.org.