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The Farm in the Dell
When a child turns 18 or goes off to college, parents worry. They want their child to be happy and successful. When that child has special needs, however, the concerns are different, and they last forever. While happiness and success are still important, housing and daily care take priority.
In the 1980s, Lowell and Susan Bartels began working with a group of parents in Montana to create a self-supporting farming home for adults with developmental disabilities.
Their efforts grew into the Farm in the Dell Foundation International, and today there are four independent locations in Montana, plus homes in Minnesota, Saskatchewan, and Kyrgyzstan (Montana’s sister country).
Each farm has its own specialty. In Montana, for example, residents in Kalispell raise miniature Herefords, while those in Helena grow produce in greenhouses and then make and sell salsa. In Butte, residents raise livestock and sell chicken and duck eggs to restaurants and community members.
Farming in Butte
Hallie Jasty Johnson is the Farm in the Dell manager in Butte. The 92-acre ranch is home to five full-time male residents living with autism or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, ranging in ages from 18 to 30.
“Our residents are really close with each other,” she says. “That connection helps boost their self-esteem.” The five men live in a six-bedroom home on the ranch, with a staff member on-site.
Residents wake up each morning at 6:30 and one will help staff cook breakfast while the others do housework. Then, they head out to tackle farm chores like taking care of the cattle, chickens, ducks, goats, sheep, llama, and donkeys. Other jobs include harrowing, gardening, building fence, and doing fieldwork.
When the chores are done, there is time for projects. “We try to keep them busy,” Johnson says. “One of our residents loves sewing and another loves baking. They all enjoy building things.” The residents made their own herb garden boxes out of pallets, and they’ve built houses for the ducks, goats, and chickens.
A ranch manager oversees the livestock, and Johnson says the residents have a connection with the animals. For example, when the llama first came to the ranch, he wouldn’t come near people. Now, he eats carrots out of the residents’ hands. They also teach the goats to walk with leashes, so they can be sold and entered in shows.
A Home for Tyler
Lori Wubben’s son, Tyler, is one of the residents at the Farm in the Dell in Butte. In kindergarten, he was diagnosed with ADHD, but Wubben says she and her husband always felt there was something more to it than that. When he was 16, Tyler was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome.
“He was very much alone in school and had no friends,” Wubben says. “It was so sad.” After high school, he got a job working at a nearby dairy and was doing well until he fell in with a bad crowd and began using synthetic cannabinoid, a so-called designer drug that can cause psychotic episodes. “The kids he was hanging out with knew when payday was, and they would come around and take his money,” she says. Tyler bounced between group homes, a homeless shelter, and a treatment facility.
Things turned around for Tyler when his parents moved him to the Farm in the Dell. “It’s such a stable, safe environment,” Wubben says. “As a mom, I can now go to sleep and know he is safe. Not having to worry is just priceless.”
Tyler does well with the routine the staff has established. “Change throws him for a loop, and he feels safe because he knows what’s going to happen next,” Wubben says.
Working with the other residents has also led to genuine friendships for Tyler. He has brought friends home to stay for holiday and weekend visits. The residents cheer each other on in Special Olympics events. The staff even threw them a dance party, and Tyler was crowned Homecoming King. “These are the things he didn’t get to experience in school,” Wubben says. “This is an absolutely wonderful home away from home for the young men living here.”
Community Support is Key
Johnson says without the support of the community, the Farm in the Dell would not be possible. “Our residents go to church, go grocery shopping, and are known in Butte,” she says. “Community members come visit us often and are so generous.”
She hopes the generosity of the public will continue, both in Butte and on a national level. “We need to help the Farm in the Dell Foundation grow because it’s amazing,” she says. “It changes lives.”
Learn more about the nonprofit Farm in the Dell Foundation, arrange a visit to any of the farms, make a donation, or inquire about opening a new location by calling 406/449-9394, by visiting farminthedell.org, or by following any of the farms on Facebook.
Photograph, left to right: Matt Vandenacre, Tyler Wubben, Nikolai Conboy-Smith, Noah Davis, and Jeremy Van Horn reside at the Farm in the Dell in Butte, along with ranch dog Annie.