By Todd Cohen
CARY, N.C. — Erin O’Loughlin was “tapped out and exhausted and juggling life.”
She also was frustrated.
It was December 2011, and O’Loughlin was having a tough time finding programs appropriate for her severely autistic son, Marcus, then 7, during the three-week “track-out” periods when Middle Creek Elementary School in Apex was not open for classes.
“He has no options when he’s tracked out,” she says. “There are options for kids with no special needs, but not for kids with special needs.”
Her frustration, along with a chance suggestion from a parent of an autistic adult, sparked O’Loughlin’s idea for a farm that would provide residential facilities for adults with autism, along with a broad range of programs for adults and children with autism.
3 Irish Jewels Farm, which would be the first of its kind in Wake County and only one of about 10 farm communities throughout the U.S. for people with autism, aims to help address growing demand for autism programs.
One in 88 children in the U.S. have autism, up from about three in 10,000 children who were diagnosed with the disorder in 1975, the year she was born, O’Loughlin says.
Yet despite that surge, she says, programs and funding for people with autism are limited.
The waiting list for federal funding through a Medicaid program that waives income restrictions for people with special needs, for example, can be as long as eight or nine years, she says.
O’Loughlin, who has held marketing and fundraising jobs at nonprofits, is working full-time to develop plans, partnerships and support for her new nonprofit.
She has invested $20,000 of her own money, generated over $300,000 in individual contributions, in-kind donations and grants, including $250,000 over five years from the Samuel P. Mandell Foundation in Pennsylvania.
Depending on whether the land she buys already has buildings on it that could be renovated, she says, developing the facilities and programs could cost up to $3 million and take two to three years, and the farm likely would be launched in phases.
She expects to operate the farm with a $3 million annual budget and a staff in partnership with GHA Autism Supports, a nonprofit in Albermarle that will operate the residential and day programs for adults.
The farm likely would begin summer and track-out programs for children.
The next phase would include a capital campaign to raise money to build four to five one-story homes, each serving three to four residents.
Plans also call for the farm to include a local farmer’s market; on-site store for residents to sell their crafts; “community shared agriculture” for local individuals and restaurants; a range of animals; activities such as gardening, landscaping, animal care and horse-riding therapy; and a craft center, life-skills center and recreation programs.
Services for people with autism are limited and are available for children only through age 22, yet adults “don’t go grow out of autism,” O’Loughlin says. “We have no game plan for them.”
What’s more, facilities for adults with autism are “in crisis because government keeps cutting their funding,” she says.
At the same time, families living with autism “need respite, need breaks, need to be understood and don’t need to feel guilty about it,” O’Loughlin says.
They also are “panicked,” she says. “We don’t know who’s going to take care of our children when we’re gone.”
While the farm she is developing will not begin to fill the big gap in services, she says, “I want my child and some of these other children to have a future.”