Everyone needs a place where they feel they belong, but such places are as hard to find as a needle in a haystack if you have special needs. That’s why volunteers and clients alike find WindReach Farm to be such a magical place. The one-of-a-kind, 105-acre, working farm near Ashburn, Ontario, provides a place where the therapeutic power of farm animals has been harnessed to improve the lives of people who’ve suffered trauma or have different needs and challenges.

“There is just something about being around animals that’s soothing,” says farm executive director Ross Ste-Croix. “Even the volunteers, and those of us who work here, find it calming to go out and play with a goat or hold a kitten when we’re feeling a little stressed. Animals don’t judge you. They don’t discern who’s feeding them or mucking out their stalls. This really helps people with special needs, especially those with intellectual disabilities.”

It’s Kristopher Tontegode’s favorite place to be. The young man from Stouffville, Ontario, with intellectual disabilities, first came to WindReach Farms on a school outing five years ago and fell in love with the place. He’s now a regular at the farm and attends the Learning-4-Life Adult Day Program two days a week.

“I love to make new friends here,” says Tontegode. “We play games, work with the farm animals and have fun. My favorites are the goats. I like to pet them, and sometimes walk them too.”

While you would be hard pressed to find anyone who raises livestock that doesn’t love being around their animals, few have ever thought about the therapeutic value of being around them. But they can have a tremendously positive effect on people with a wide array of special needs, Ste-Croix says. Just the simple act of feeding the farm’s goats, pigs, sheep, cows, horses, and other farm animals on a regular schedule, for example, can help people with eating disorders.

Kristopher Tontegode and Ross Ste-Croix visit the goats at WindReach Farm.

WindReach Farm was founded by Sandy Mitchell MBE in 1989. The three-time equestrian Paralympian dreamed of being a farmer when he was a young man, but every time he tried to find work on a farm he was turned away because he suffered from cerebral palsy. These setbacks just made him more determined to farm. He decided to use family money to establish a fully accessible farm of his own where people like him would be welcome and accepted for who they are. Right from the start the entire property was designed to be fully wheelchair accessible.

The farm now brings in nearly 20,000 people each year that participate in a wide array of programming for various special needs. The Learning-4-Life program that Tontegode participates in, for example, is designed for those with intellectual disabilities. It provides a socialization network where they can see the same people every week. Sometimes they help feed the animals or do some planting. Other times they’ll participate in sports to help improve their socialization and learn life skills.

Another, the Life Skills program, is designed to teach life and work skills to clients that have higher levels of functionality, explains Ste-Croix. Participants roll up their sleeves and work like a farmer. They go into the barn and tend to all the animals’ needs, and some even help with calving and lambing.

“One of our former participants now actually owns his own farm,” Ste-Croix. “Obviously that’s not every story, but he was determined. While he was here he always talked about, ‘I’m going to have cows of my own on day.’ So, I think it’s really neat that he does. He still checks in with us every once in a while.”

They have a wool therapy program where participants process raw fleece into finished products. It helps improve fine motor skills, cognitive abilities, and enhances their self-esteem and confidence. Ste-Croix says the horticultural therapy program seems quite effective with groups that have experienced trauma or have Alzheimer’s.

However, the farm is possibly best known for its therapeutic riding and para-equestrian dressage programs. Its 22 horse programs improve the lives of those suffering from everything from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) to autism.

“We probably run around a hundred lessons a week,” says Ste-Croix. “People have the option to take either a private lesson to get some one-on-one time or they can save a bit of money and take a group lesson.”

The farm couldn’t function without volunteers; they have over 250 that show up every week without fail.

As a non-profit organization, the farm strives to keep the cost of their programs as low as possible because usually those who need them are not in the highest socioeconomic brackets, Ste-Croix says. But such extensive programming costs money. Their feed bill alone is more the $30,000 a year. WindReach does receive some government grants for things like infrastructure, but doesn’t get recurring government funding. It depends on donations from companies and individuals to pay the bills. The horse community in the greater Toronto area in particular have been great supporters.

“We only have a few full-time staff, so our success really depends on the flood of volunteers who donate their time to the farm,” Ste-Croix says. “I’d worked for non-profits for years before coming to WindReach Farm and I’ve never been anywhere else where they have this many regular volunteers. We have over 250 that show up every week without fail. At any given time, we probably have between 20 to 30 on the farm. I’ve never seen such a passionate supportive group; they just live and breathe WindReach.”

Gerry Farrugia from Whitby, Ontario, has been volunteering at WindReach a couple of days a week for a few hours since 2015. Her time there is spent giving tours, doing paper work, or working with the animals.

“I fell in love with the place when I started volunteering at WindReach,” Farrugia says. “It’s pretty unique! The staff and the volunteers are amazing and the clients that we serve are fantastic. Their eyes just light up and they get excited when they see the animals. Even for myself I can’t help but get a smile on my face when I’m driving up here because I know I’m coming to a peaceful, friendly place. There’s definitely plenty to see and do.”

The volunteers are attracted to the farm because they find it an uplifting place to work, Ste-Croix says. But clients like coming because it’s truly a place where they feel they fit in.

“For someone who grew up hearing about all the things they can’t do, it’s really special to find a place built just for them where they can laugh, have fun, or learn a skill,” Ste-Croix says. “I think it provides a sense of belonging that’s missing in other places.” 

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