Local | Mind, Body & Spirit

Adults with autism learn life skills at AZ ranch

At the farm at Echoing Hope Ranch, Jonathan Townsend writes down his schedule for the week.  (Courtesy Harlie Garcia)
At the farm at Echoing Hope Ranch, Jonathan Townsend writes down his schedule for the week. (Courtesy Harlie Garcia)

At first glance, Echoing Hope Ranch looks like the other farms and ranches that mark the landscape in Hereford, Ariz.; however, the programs and residents make EHR truly unique. Created six years ago, EHR was built with the goal of providing residential and in-home care for adults with autism in Cochise and Pima counties.

When her son Jonathan Townsend was nearing the point where he would “age out” of the autism program at Rincon High School, Harlie Garcia and her family began to explore options for Jonathan’s continuing care.

“I got involved with Echoing Hope Ranch with the goal that it would be a place for Jonathan,” says Garcia. “I had looked at other day-programs, and some of them were very good, but none of them offered exactly what I wanted for him.” Like many parents of children with special needs, Garcia had learned to advocate for her son and seek out programs that would benefit Jonathan, such as working with Congregation Or Chadash to utilize a full-time aide so that Jonathan could celebrate becoming a bar mitzvah. Learning about EHR through an online group for parents of children on the autism spectrum, Garcia and her father, Ken Jacowsky, eagerly joined the board of directors as the organization was getting started. When they met Executive Director Marla Guerrero, she was working with her family and several other individuals to find and purchase the land that EHR currently occupies.

Currently housing seven adults in the residential program, EHR expects to be at maximum capacity with 10 residents by the end of 2015. Unlike group homes, EHR is classified as an Individually Designed Living Arrangement, which requires residents to be able to have some independence. “My son hadn’t had a lot of experience with an independent lifestyle when he moved in — partly because I was concerned about what might happen if he was by himself, and partly because there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for him to do that,” says Garcia. After her initial concerns diminished, Garcia began to see that her son was blossoming in his new environment. “I never could have imagined that Jonathan would have a job or a roommate. When I go to visit, I walk in and I feel like I’m walking into the room of two boys in a college dorm. Even though his roommate is non-verbal, they are just hanging out together. It’s amazing to see that he has friends.”

In addition to the residential program, EHR also offers day programs, employment services, and home and community-based services, such as habilitation and respite. Thanks to several grants, including one from the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona, EHR is launching a Community Supported Agriculture program at the ranch. With the intention of providing jobs to residents and day-program participants, the CSA hopes to begin selling shares to community members in January. As a non-profit 501(c)3, EHR relies on grants and donations to cover expenses that aren’t met by state funding.

Working outside on the ranch has had a positive effect on Jonathan’s health, according to Harlie. “What I’ve seen him grow into has amazed me. He’s doing more and more. When Jonathan moved onto the ranch, he was significantly overweight. In his first seven months there, he lost close to 40 pounds.” Garcia currently serves as president of the EHR board of directors. EHR will host its third annual Harvest Festival, open to the public, on Oct. 24.

For more information, visit echoinghoperanch.org or call 520-508-2087.

Laura Wilson Etter is a freelance journalist, grant writer and artist in Tucson.