Parents of disabled kids turn Northfield farm into free rec facility for others
Saint Paul Pioneer Press - 9/17/2018
Sept. 17--The woman wearing a colorful hijab was walking next to Sheryl Grassie during a recent trip to the Minneapolis farmers market. Suddenly the woman screamed and jumped back, and Grassie knew immediately her son Seth was the cause.
Even though he was in his wheelchair, Seth, who has severe autism, had still managed to turn their family outing into an awkward embarrassment. Mesmerized by the brightly colored fabric, he had reached out his hand, grabbed a fistful and squeezed.
"It was a sensory experience for him," Grassie explained. "He didn't know what he was doing."
As Seth has grown, Grassie is finding fewer and fewer places she feels comfortable taking him.
"It's an island, our world," she said. "Every parent of a kid with a severe disability knows this. There's nowhere to go."
And then, in January, she found "A Great Day Farm," just south of Northfield, newly opened by Greg and Patty Closser who understood her dilemma. The 13-acre property in Bridgewater Township has a three-acre fenced-in area and a 3,400-square-foot building equipped with everything a caregiver might need. And, it's free, completely supported by the Clossers and a few generous donors.
The Clossers, who raised seven children of their own, two of them mentally disabled, have made it their mission to create a safe, calm, country setting for parents and caregivers to bring their children and let them be themselves without fear of upsetting others.
"We're open to anybody with disabilities," Greg Closser, 66, said. "But we're trying to provide a place for individuals with limited options."
"This is a dream come true," Grassie said, after visiting. "They understand. It is such an amazing thing to have somewhere to go."
'A WHOLE NEW WORLD FOR US'
Patty Closser, 60, was only 22 when she had her second child, Sam, who was born with Down syndrome. He had his struggles, but he was very friendly.
She described him as "socially gregarious," and said he "regularly introduces us to people we didn't think we knew."
The Clossers went on to have three more children, and once their nest was empty, they decided to adopt twins. One of them, Tom, studies psychology at Northfield'sSt. Olaf College. The other, Max, has severe autism.
"Max has been a whole new world for us," Patty said. Unlike Sam, Max was nonverbal and self-abusive to the point that he became legally blind after hitting himself in the head too many times.
"He put his head through the windows. He put his head through the walls," Patty said. "Your house gets destroyed."
Taking him out into the public was nearly impossible.
"We stopped going to church. We stopped going out. We'd ride around in the car a lot," she said.
Then Max's special-ed class came out to their property for a picnic, and the Clossers began to dream about creating a place for people like Max and their caregivers to enjoy.
"We saw a need and had the means to do something about it," Greg said.
THE HEART AND THE MOUTH
The Clossers jokingly refer to themselves by how they approached creating "A Great Day Farm."
"Patty is the heart and I'm the mouth," Greg said.
Patty, a life-long caregiver and mom, is the dreamer and prefers to work behind the scenes. It was her idea to adopt Tom and Max, and she's the one with the big dreams for how the "Farm" will look one day.
Greg, former president and CEO of All Flex, a manufacturer of flexible printed circuit boards, knows business and networking. He's the "mouth" that has brought in over $50,000 in donations that helped get A Great Day Farm off the ground. His official last day at the company is Oct. 4.
Now he plans to spend his retirement making the Farm a sensory haven for Max and those like him.
On Saturday, the couple walked around their property pointing out future expansions. The facility, which was phase one, provides an indoor respite. Its walls are padded for safety. It has a kitchen and a bathroom and is stocked with toys and games like a rice bin, an electronic keyboard, a basketball hoop, several balls and a couple of swings.
A fence stretches from the building's back door around 3 acres of a former hayfield where the next phases will unfold. On Saturday, bulldozers were busy carving a butterfly-shaped path into the earth that will eventually serve as meandering roads through themed areas within the space.
Insurance restrictions prevent them from having a full-fledged petting zoo, but the Clossers hope to get around that by building a goat pen that guests can interact with through a system of ropes and pulleys. The guests would use the contraptions to place food around the pen for the goats.
A 32-by-32-foot pavilion, placed in the center of the butterfly, will be erected next week. Other plans include giant rocking horses, a little cabin to play at camping, an old boat on springs, chickens, large musical chimes and a sledding hill.
Greg estimates the property needs $600,000 to make those dreams a reality. They will provide the $50,000 needed per year to keep the place running and pay their one full-time employee and part-time helpers.
"We're really looking for some help to get it all built," he said.
A UNIQUE PLACE
Angie, a personal-care assistant from Riverview Services in Wanamingo was all smiles Saturday. She and four other staff members drove 12 of their clients 30 miles to check out A Great Day Farm. The agency asked that only the first names of their clients and staff be used.
She was smiling because one of her more difficult clients, Dave, seemed to be enjoying himself.
"He's our screamer," she said. "The fact that he's not screaming is wonderful."
She described A Great Day Farm as unique and the only other place she could take her clients besides their jobs.
Dave seemed to enjoy the open space of the building. He paced around, happy to be left alone.
Judy, another client, sat in her wheelchair watching the commotion while Mary, who cannot talk at all, bobbed her head to a tune playing on the keyboard.
The Clossers mingled with their guests, offering coloring books and toys and smiling to see the people happy and the caregivers looking relaxed.
Word is spreading. The Clossers were expecting a group of 70 on Sunday. Another group traveled from Richfield, over 40 miles away.
One guest had lived his whole life in the city and had never seen the country, Patty said. "He just looked and looked and said, 'I bet you can see a lot of stars out here.' "
The Clossers offer a few events, such as dances, art classes and even a live nativity scene at Christmas, where Sam plays the part of a wise man.
"They are just so thrilled to have a place to come to," Patty said. "Otherwise, they sit in their rooms with nothing to do. You need a place to go where you can feel comfortable."
A place where everyone can have a great day.
For more information, go online to agreatdayfarm.org.
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