AAIE Riding Program

“I like the way the goats make me feel calm,” he said.

Simple, sweet words which give us a glimpse into a young man’s heart. They are a priceless expression to his parents, relatives, teachers, and friends. On a daily basis, this same young man struggles to communicate and live in this world in the same ways most of us do. So, his words are a rare gem.

They illuminate our philosophy here at The Center for Discovery®. That all living things should be connected: plants – animals – people – the Earth. This is the very heart of TCFD.

His words convey connection. Community. Acceptance.  Reverence. Wonder. Unconditional love.

That connection builds bridges to understanding and knowledge and skill, yes, but more importantly to compassion, sympathy, empathy and tenderness. It builds bonds that do not require the spoken or written word.  And, there is pure, deep, unadulterated communication that resides there.

Like a seed – it is this connection from which everything – every program – every lesson – indeed, all vital health and wellness – springs forth here at The Center.

It began more than 30 years ago when our CEO, Patrick H. Dollard, and his then small staff began to bring people out of the state-run institutions and into the small group homes that comprised TCFD. “It was clear from the beginning that the individuals who became our first residents needed better care in every aspect, but particularly nutritionally.  Fundamentally, they needed good food,” he said, “And so we set out to do it ourselves. We bought a farm early on and got everyone involved in the process of growing, harvesting and making meals. I’m an old farm boy, and I’ve always felt good, clean food is the pathway to better health.”

Three decades later, The Center is working toward total food security. More than 300 acres of the TCFD campus are farmed by professional farmers, orchardists, farm assistants, and TCFD residents and students.  The organic, biodynamic produce is turned into 1,800 daily meals by a massive team of nutritionists and chefs.  An additional 300 area families and community members benefit from taking part in The Center’s community supported agriculture program (CSA).  The Center’s cutting-edge research team has a growing body of data on the wonderful impact of this nutrient-dense, chemical-free, whole-foods diet on the health and wellness of TCFD’s residents and students.

These are the wonderful, tangible and in many cases measurable, life-changing benefits.  If you dig deeper, there are some significant, immeasurable ones too.

Eve Minson, our Director of Herbal Education, who has worn many hats in her professional life from landscape designer to teacher to floral designer and farmer, called her work at The Center “eye opening and humbling.” To work on the farm is to be surrounded by “medicine, food and beauty,” she said, “it is noble work” that does not get lost on the young men and women who assist her. She watches them as they are transformed by the big things like planting and tending and growing, and “the subtle things too – the breeze – the hawks above or even the pollinators.” “It’s miraculous and the most basic thing in the world,” she said.

Miracles are a common occurrence at The Center. They unfold on every part of the campus every day.  They start with this connection to the soil, all critters big and small, and to each other.  Everything is intentional which means a lot of work goes into planning every step of every activity due to the high needs of the students and residents. Tom Mead, TCFD’s Assistant Chief of Education said, “My teachers are really good at thinking about what each student needs and what part of an activity can help him or her… we are constantly meeting and planning.”

The same is the case whether it is work with the land or work within the increasing number of animal programs at The Center.  What started out as a few horses and a pot-bellied pig has blossomed perhaps even bigger and brighter than anyone envisioned 30 years ago.

Approximately 600 chickens peck, cluck and chat their way around Tom’s part of the campus while residents and students clean up their “wagon homes,” feed them, gather their eggs, and wash and package the eggs for the chefs, local stores, and within the community.  “We really work as a team,” he said and it was never more obvious than on the first day everyone returned from COVID-19 quarantine, “Everyone was so happy to be back. Everyone missed working together and using the farm to do that.”  Connection.

TCFD’s Director of Farm Education, Autumn Ackermann, and her team welcomed six kids (animals) this spring, and this summer adopted eight new Shetland ewes.  It has been a long-term goal for The Center to develop a dairy program.  Right now the goat milk is an ingredient in soaps and lotions handcrafted by residents and students. The sheep will provide wool for the fiber arts program.  Intention every step of the way.

Autumn said, “I think we truly make magic happen here every day.” The baby goats, the “kids,” were particularly magical.  There was rarely a dry eye when the residents came to feed, milk and nurture them. “If they are having a bad day – they come here and it changes them,” she said and recalled a young man who did not speak or ever show much reaction until he was introduced to the kids, “He just lit up when he saw them, and he still does.”

Most people with complex conditions – like autism – respond well to structure, schedules, and organization, and life on a farm whether in the fields or in the barn, has a rhythm and a routine that works for them. Autumn’s team has watched residents and students who have trouble finding things they love to do – become instant friends with the goats and all of a sudden want to assume responsibility for another living thing.

Relationships matter.

“For children with autism, finding a buddy in a peer can be so hard. Here we have seen children and adults first connect to the animals or the plants and soil and then with each other as they perform certain tasks and activities. It is profound,” said Patrick H. Dollard, “when we get a few words or see smiles and gestures from them we know they have connected on a very deep level.”

The connection is also happening in stables, in residential homes and in classrooms as The Center continues to also build a professional clinical entity, the Animal Assisted Intervention Education department or “AAIE,” in which various animals, trainers, handlers and clinicians like occupational and specialized physical therapists, as well as speech pathologists, work together with residents and students.

Heather Ackerman, AAIE Program Director, and Sarah Merrick, AAIE Clinical Director, have been at TCFD for 14 and 7 years, respectively.  They have been a part of the growth of the program from mini-horses born and raised by residents and students, to regular-size therapeutic riding horses, five service dogs now being raised and trained on campus, and rabbits which were just introduced into some residential homes.

“Animals have universal acceptance of everyone which is significant and something that the residents and students don’t always get in the outside world,” Sarah said, “When they make these connections, they are living in the moment and sometimes they forget their limitations.”  Sarah said she will never forget watching a student who was so engaged with Leland, TCFD’s first facility dog, he barely noticed he took his first independent steps while walking the dog!  Moments like these change everyone – students, residents, clinicians, animal handlers, and trainers.

The bonds, Heather said, are sparking dreams and opening up opportunities for residents and students like competitions in the greater community. One resident recently took the written test to become a handler.  “The possibilities are endless,” she added with unmistakable passion.  And, they lead to more connection.  More community.  More wonder.  More love.

And so, it comes full circle. This common golden thread of connection weaves together all the diverse departments and staff, residents, students, animals (yes, even our friends the bees) and plants around The Center. It energizes the 1700 staffers who have some of the hardest jobs in the world. It converts enthusiasm into passion. It creates collaboration across disciplines. It builds community and endless compassion. Everyone is invested in each other. In the land.  In the animals. In their world.

Tom Mead has watched a lot of students grow and develop in his nearly 30 years at The Center; “The success for my students with autism and other complex conditions I believe comes directly from the relationships – to the earth, the animals and to each other.”   The very heart of The Center for Discovery®.   What a lesson for the rest of the world.