COLUMBIA FALLS — Sherry Lewis-Peterson, dirtied up to her elbows and powdered in dust, dug her hands into the sundried soil. One by one, she cupped out handfuls until there was a small hole, a new home for a trellis and future grape vine.
Lewis-Peterson spent the morning planting under the summer sun, surrounded by plots of budding farmland and her son, Hunter, and daughter, Olivia, who both helped nearby.
The Columbia Falls mother is trying to grow a new school for children with autism and special needs. Her vision — the nonprofit Farming for the Future Academy — is centered on agriculture and special education programs based around individual abilities and needs.
Since Hunter was diagnosed with autism at a young age, Lewis-Peterson has imagined a learning environment where her son could grow as a young man, safely and productively. The traditional education setting wasn’t working out for Hunter, so his mother began looking for a solution.
Autism is a developmental disorder that affects the brain’s normal development of social and communication skills. A recent report released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that autism and related disorders are more common than previously thought. One in 88 children in the U.S. were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders in 2008, according to the CDC. The estimated rate in 2002 was roughly one in 155. Children who are diagnosed on the spectrum vary widely in their abilities and symptoms.
Lewis-Peterson hoped to find a setting that offered peace and comfort, but also an opportunity to nurture life skills that could help Hunter transition into adulthood. Skills like planting and raising fruits and vegetables, cooking and cleaning around a farm setting and selling produce at community markets.
“I knew I wanted my child to be outside,” she said.
While operating Plum Tree Daycare and Preschool from her home in Columbia Falls, Lewis-Peterson came up with the Farming for the Future Academy, an outdoor learning center where Hunter and others could still focus on a core curriculum, but also pursue individual goals and interests.
Over the last few years, Lewis-Peterson went back to school and is now certified as a special education instructor to go along with degrees in psychology, elementary education and a master’s in curriculum and instruction.
Last winter, she officially formed the nonprofit academy and started searching for a site. She approached the Veterans’ Home and the administrators offered the facility’s former garden as well as one of its buildings to be used for indoor classrooms.
“We couldn’t do it without their help,” Lewis-Peterson said.
The academy, intended for children between preschool age and high school, is not solely for those with autism.
“We can take anybody,” she said.
It is not accredited through the state but would follow several guidelines, like being in session for 180 days. Instead of following the traditional school calendar, the academy would run primarily during harvest seasons. There would be a para educator assigned to each student as a chaperone, she said.
“Upon meeting set goals each student will be allowed to form a major in an area of interest. Collaboration between the student, family and core team will ensure that each major is well rounded and includes Montana Standards of Education for that grade level,” she wrote on the academy’s website, www.farmingforthefutureacademyinc.org.
The garden would be the outdoor classroom, where students would interact and learn to nurture produce together. The indoor classroom would feature iPads with educational programs for each individual.
“Instead of using set curriculum, we’re going to say, ‘what are your interests and how can we make it so it’s good for each child?’” she said. “Each student will have a goal. If it’s a child who has severe autism, then his goal will be different.”
Over the last few weeks, Lewis-Peterson and others have planted the first seeds of the academy on the roughly one-acre garden. Thanks to several generous donations from the community, the nonprofit academy was able to build a tall fence around the plot of land. It will prevent children from wandering off unattended, and also keep the wildlife out.
The garden is open to members of the Veterans’ Home, as well as community members who might want a section of land for their own gardening, Lewis-Peterson said.
Along with planting the first seeds, Lewis-Peterson is also seeking grant funding and other support that would help launch the academy by September. Right now she has enough resources to enroll two students, she said, but her goal would be five.
“Getting started is very hard,” she said. “So far, it’s come out of my pocket and it’s OK because I would do it anyways. But we need the donations to get it up and going.”
For more information about the Farming for the Future Academy, visit its website, http://www.farmingforthefutureacademyinc.org/
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.