By Heather Bennett
Westonwood Ranch, founded by Lindy Wood, is a non-profit organization located in Freeport that will offer a farm-based learning program for individuals with autism. They will focus on providing functional learning opportunities to prepare young individuals and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder a transition into the workforce.
Lindy and her family moved to Walton County after years of living in rural Alabama. Her 7-year-old son Weston, was diagnosed with autism when he was two, and extensive therapy there was limited. After visiting several other schools, they decided The Emerald Coast Autism Center in Niceville was the best choice for Weston. They moved to Freeport, and bought a 40-acre tract of land, trying to recreate the farm they had in Alabama.
The idea for Westonwood Ranch was developed with influence and assistance from Emerald Coast Autism Center, as they also had concerns about the “next step” for their student population. Lindy learned that some parents have no choice, but to quit their jobs to stay home with their children who need full time care after they age out of public school. There is only a patchwork of services available for young adults.“I saw my little Weston at age 22 and I wanted so much more for him,” said Lindy. She knew her new land could be used for more than just a family farm.
Westonwood Ranch is set to start welcoming full-time students in early 2019. Students will be able to learn life skills, like self-care and wellness, and also develop business skills like marketing and sales by incorporating commercial aquaponic greenhouse operations into the curriculum. Students will have the opportunity to learn ranch operations, animal feeding and care, landscape gardening, take creative arts classes and fitness classes. Animal assisted therapy is also available. In addition to the young adult program, Westonwood Ranch will offer summer day camp for children ages 6-18, that will also utilize farm based learning and equine activities, to deliver a unique camp experience.
Lindy wanted the farm to be self-sustaining with a revenue stream to help support the non-profit. It will be a working farm with several micro business enterprises contributing back into the program. They plan to farm catfish, sell produce at farmers markets, and sell to local restaurants that provide farm to table service. They also plan to offer horse boarding.
Lindy wants Westonwood Ranch to fill in the gaps where traditional vocational rehabilitation programs fall short. These programs are often failing those with autism because they have unique social, communication and behavioral challenges that people with other disabilities don’t have. “There’s not enough focus on looking at the individual and figuring out what their unique talents and skills are and retrofitting that into a job that’s comparable to their skills,” stated Lindy. Westonwood Ranch works closely with The Emerald Coast Autism Center, and has received support from Walton County businesses and nonprofit organizations, all expressing a desire to be a community partner by promoting an inclusive workforce. “The support that we’ve received has been tremendous,” Lindy said. “I’ve been in awe of the numerous individuals who have been touched by autism in some way, who felt led to give their time, talents and financial gifts to make this vision a reality,” said Lindy. “ I am so grateful to be a part of such a generous community.”
I hope this story can serve to strengthen their mission and get the community involved. If you are interested in learning more about Westonwood Ranch, please visit their Facebook Page for videos and up-to-date photos and visit their website at www.westonwood.org for more information.