OLMSTED TOWNSHIP, Ohio - Tucked away in Olmsted Township, a special Christmas tree farm has sprouted up this holiday season.
Willow Farms, an extension of STEPS Academy, is a special school for students on the autism spectrum. Instead of clustering kids into classrooms, Willow Farms teaches middle and high school students vocational skills and life lessons in non-traditional ways.
In the summer, they worked a produce stand. In the fall, it was a pumpkin patch. Now, it is home to a Christmas tree farm.
“We have seen students that hated coming to school, that didn’t want to do anything, and now they’re flourishing and it means everything,” said Hollee Anderson, the farm’s director.
There are 17 students and 11 teachers. The students are on the farm like any typical school day - from 8:15 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. - and spend their day broken up into “blocks” instead of classes. One block may be working in the woodshed crafting items to sell, while another is in the barn grooming horses. They also spend time learning computer skills.
“They’re not looking at it so much as school, but more as they’re having a great time being outside,” Anderson said. “They’re learning and they don’t know that they’re learning.”
For students like 17-year-old Adam Cantu, the work ethic, the vocational skills and the interaction with animals make a world of difference.
“It’s a good feeling of accomplishment and self gratification,” Cantu said. “Like, ‘Yes! They’re happy with what they got and it’s all because of me.'"
The tree farm and craft shop is open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. during the week and from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends. Trees run between $40 and $80, and the profits go back to the school.
The address to Willow Farms is 7513 Lewis Rd. in Olmsted Township.