Midnight Farm’s ‘magical’ effect: Problems disappear, smiles break out

Horseback riders Robert Shoemaker, 21, left and Diana Burns, 46, right, walk around the interior of the equestrian facility at Midnight Farm on Friday accompanied by Community Living Opportunities staff and volunteers. CLO’s Midnight Farm features 40 acres with a 20,000-square-foot multipurpose facility, petting areas for animals, trails for walking and horseback riding, a fishing pond, and picnic areas for use by special needs youths and adults. Midnight Farm is located in Douglas County south of Eudora.

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Diana Burns straps on her helmet.

Volunteers help the 46-year-old onto her horse’s saddle and almost immediately a smile takes over her face.

“There’s something about that connection,” said Yolanda Hargett, a senior administrator with Community Living Opportunities, which provides services for adults and kids with developmental disabilities. “They seem to just really light up when they’re interacting with the animals.”

Now CLO’s nearly 400 clients have a place to do just that.

The 40-acre Midnight Farm in southeastern Douglas County is a working farm run by CLO that provides programs and opportunities for adults and children with special needs. There are even two houses on the property, where clients with disabilities live alongside a host family, experiencing the farm life. Plans call for two more houses to be built on the property in the future.

“It really is magical to be here,” said Diane Bannerman Juracek, head of children’s services, which this summer put on the farm’s first camp for children with autism and their parents.

“The kids were smiling for the entire week,” CEO Mike Strouse said. “It was amazing to see how incredibly happy the kids were.”

It’s a sight seen over and over again as both kids and adults with developmental disabilities flock to the farm to take part in the day program, which includes arts and crafts or getting up close and personal with Ricky, a 17-and-a-half hand Belgian draft horse, the muscle behind the wagon rides across the property. The farm also has a petting zoo, with ponies, alpacas and even a fainting goat, as well as a therapeutic horseback riding program.

“We have kids who have very challenging behavioral problems and will be on a horse and have none,” Strouse said. “I’m marveled at that.”

All of the horses involved in the therapeutic riding program were donated to the organization, including two former world champions and a horse from the four-time National Championship University of Georgia equestrian team.

The farm is developing a horticulture program, in which clients will be able to help pick strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and other produce, then package the items and sell them at local farmer’s markets.

“We abandoned the notion of shelter-type arrangements for people with disabilities, in favor of strong community inclusion and enriching opportunities for them,” Strouse said. “For people with very significant developmental disabilities it can be challenging to find activities that are really enriching for them. That’s what this is all about.”

About 50 volunteers are working at the farm. Hargett would like to double or even triple that number as more programs get started.

“I’ve received e-mails from volunteers saying how much it has touched their hearts and made life so meaningful for them by helping,” she said.

Midnight Farm is celebrating its opening with an event called Bubbles and Barbeque on Saturday. About 700 people have been invited to the farm for the fundraiser.