Parents of children with autism not only have to care for their child today, but they also must plan for the child's future.
"In most circumstances, children outlive their parents and parents have to plan for that, but it is especially true in the case of parents of children with autism," said Lindy Wood.
Wood and her husband are the parents of a 7-year-old autistic son.
The Woods moved to the Freeport area two years ago from west Alabama, searching for a place offering more services for their child. However, they found Walton and Okaloosa counties' offerings to be practically nonexistent. Now two years later, they are in the process of creating their own assistance for not only their son, but for others as well.
The Woods have purchased 40 acres in the Portland area in northern Walton County they plan to turn into a unique learning facility teaching life and vocational skills to children and young adults with autism spectrum disorder.
Westonwood Ranch, named for their son, is a pre-planned, nonprofit development designed to provide these skills in a holistic, green farm environment. It will offer a farm-based learning program for individuals with autism and related developmental disorders.
At Westonwood participants will have the opportunity to engage in a variety of skill sets and activities; they will have direct input in their learning curriculum by selecting and participating in an array of diverse life classes with the end goal of being gainfully employed.
The offerings will include aquaponic greenhouse operations, marketing and sales of organic produce, landscape gardening, ranch maintenance, therapeutic equine activities, animal feeding and care, animal assisted therapy, creative arts, life skills/self care/fitness/wellness, and a summer enrichment program focusing on agriculture. All of this is geared to promote individual growth through social, physical and cognitive stimulation.
The ranch will have a 4,800-square-foot vocational training center and a covered equine arena with stables.
Working relationships with local businesses will be established for internship sites and employment opportunities.
"We plan to implement various community outreach/educational programs to promote autism inclusion in the workforce," said Wood. "We have to look ahead for Weston. Families receive services until the child is 22, then it's like falling off a cliff. They can't attend college as we know it. One in every 62 children is diagnosed with autism but there are no programs to help them with skills. There needs to be a fundamental shift in the way we address this issue."
To come up with the concept, Woods pulled from the fact she has always been involved with farms.
"It's a great environment to learn," she said.
She wants to provide an array of experiences for participants that for them would be similar to college.
"It's a holistic approach to expose them to an array of things. It will also help identify strengths and teach social skills," she said.
The Woods have started building relationships with businesses in Walton County that could provide internships for those with special needs to help them maintain employment.
On the 40-acre farm in Portland, located off State Road 20, there are equestrian trails and animals such as goats, chickens and horses.
The ranch is partnering with Emerald Coast Autism Center for staffing and they will be using ADA therapy.
"We will have a highly-trained staff to address issues," she said.
Westonwood Ranch is a nonprofit and seeking grant money and donations. The goal is to start construction in September on buildings and open late fall of 2018.
When open and at capacity, the facility will be able to accommodate more than 100 individuals.
For more information, visit westonwood.org.