"Mama! Mama! I caught a fish!" yells Patty Paul after pulling a sparkling bream from the pond at Thornhill Farm. Once the hook is removed, she carefully holds it up close to her face, examining the shiny scales and sharp fins. Her mother Tina arrives, beaming. "She'll be talking about this for weeks," she says.
For handicapped and special needs people like 52-year-old Patty, McClellanville's Thornhill Farm, an outreach of the nonprofit Healing Farm Ministries, is more than a safe haven; it's a place where they have a purpose. The Gary Thornhill family donated the 100-acre parcel two years ago to become a community center where disabled people can experience a sense of belonging.
Mary Tutterow is the mother of a teenage daughter with autism and the founder of Healing Farm Ministries. The first meeting took place on her porch, growing from there into a support group of families with similar situations. "We acted in faith and used the name 'Healing Farm' from the start," says Tutterow. "If we put the word 'farm' in our ministry, we knew we'd keep pushing until we got one."
Last Sunday, families and supporters gathered at the farm for a picnic that included live music by a contra-dance band from Charleston's School of the Arts. The wheelchair-bound were spun around on the dance floor, while others took paddle boats out on the pond or played with the donkeys. A kiddie pool of baby ducks attracted everyone over, including Patty, who held one lovingly and gave it a kiss.
For now, Thornhill Farm is a daytime retreat — a place to gather, relax, or tend to the farm. The organization is funded entirely by private donations. When enough money is gathered, they hope to build several group homes on the site, eventually providing housing for as many as 32 full-time residents.
The need for residential and employment services is great. In the "Case for Inclusion — A South Carolina Report" through United Cerebral Palsy (UCP), it is reported that in S.C., 8,532 families are currently being served through family support services, with a waiting list of 1,768 people for residential services. These figures are just a small indication of the gaps in services for people with disabilities in S.C. and Charleston County.
For instance, Erick and Ryan Mercer are 30-year-old twins who live with their mother, Ann, in Pawleys Island. It wasn't until the boys were several months old that anyone realized something was different about them. Even today, the doctors' best guess is that they possess a fragile X chromosome, giving them autistic-like behaviors. They both have cerebral palsy and limited verbal communication abilities.
After turning 21, the Mercer twins were no longer eligible for daytime school care by the state and moved back home. Ann suffered a heart attack in 1998, then lost her husband to cancer in Feb. 2001. Despite the circumstances, long waiting lists meant the situation was deemed not critical enough for the boys to be eligible for placement in a group home, so Ann works as the Georgetown City Clerk to Council to pay for daytime care for her sons.
"I wanted to find a home where Erick and Ryan could live, work, be happy, and receive the highest quality care," Ann says. When a caretaker passes away in most situations like the Mercers', the boys would be placed in the first available group home, although the likelihood of two openings in one place is slim to none. For two brothers who have shared a room since birth, that separation would be highly traumatic.
After applying year after year to get the twins on the critical needs list, Ann Mercer got the call on her birthday last November that they'd been accepted. "When we heard about Ann and her boys, we knew that theirs was exactly the kind of situation we were created to help," says Tutterow. "The donated farm already had a four-bedroom house. We knew we had to work something out and contacted the Georgetown County Board of Disabilities and Special Needs."
"I was speechless. I couldn't understand why all the doors were closing all those years," says Ann. "God knew where Erick and Ryan were going to wind up."
Once on the farm, Erick and Ryan can take part in planting crops, caring for animals, and tending the orchard. It's only a short drive from Pawleys Island, so Ann will be able to regularly visit the boys, easing the acclimation away from the house they've always lived in.
Healing Farms plans to distinguish itself from the commonly isolated group home atmosphere by engaging the local community. School, service, and church groups already visit the farm to help plant and harvest crops, care for the animals, and make new friends. A therapeutic horseback riding program will soon coexist on the property, and a future community center will host weddings and special events. With all the coming and going, residents should never feel like they're alone on the farm.
Thornhill Farms plans to grow crops organically and utilize green building techniques for new structures. Modeling the physical aspects of the farm around sustainable, responsible practices should carry over into the lives of people there as well.
"The name 'Healing Farm' is not so much about wounded or broken individuals, but about healing the land and healing humanity," explains Tutterow. "If you put everything in the right place and the right order, the world is one giant organism that's meant to work."
With one in 166 children born with autism, in addition to those with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and other disabilities, Healing Farm Ministries is a godsend for disabled people, who can come together in a beautiful, natural environment to interact with each other and the land. It's a place where all life has value and the sick and weakest are the honored core of the community.
"Every time I drive through the gate onto Thornhill Farm, I get a sense of calmness," says Ann Mercer. "It's a part of heaven right there, like God just sprinkled peace all over this farm."