New autism nonprofit fills void for young adults

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The nonprofit Farming Independence’s mission is to teach vocational, life and social skills to young adults with autism through pilot organic gardening, animal husbandry and culinary programs. Kevin Faustman (pictured above), a 20-year-old with autism, is one of the program’s early success stories. He pursues and teaches others about his passion—horses. Photo by Sheila Zamel Mayfield

Farming Independence aims to teach vocational, life and social skills to young adults with autism through pilot organic gardening, animal husbandry and culinary programs. A Harvest Festival fundraiser for the nonprofit will take place Sunday in Agoura Hills.

By Paula Kashtan / Special to the Malibu Times

Seeing a lack of comprehensive services for young adults with autism and those on the autism spectrum, former Malibu resident Sheila Zamel Mayfield decided to find a way to offer help-and she used her own home to start.

“I have a lot of business experience and have founded companies all over the world, but it got to the point where I wanted to do more than make a product-I wanted to give,” Mayfield said.

Mayfield founded the nonprofit, Farming Independence, in January after watching her son get involved with the Best Buddies program at Malibu High School as a mentor to special needs children and seeing how the interactive support greatly enhanced the children’s social and life skills.

Farming Independence, which achieved nonprofit status in April, aims to teach vocational, life and social skills through pilot organic gardening, animal husbandry and culinary programs. There are currently about 20 program participants, age 14 and older, all of whom have autism or are on the autistic spectrum.

Autism is a neurological disorder that affects people on a wide range of severity, said Laurie Stephens, a clinical psychologist specializing in children and young adults on the autism spectrum, and a member of Farming Independence Board of Directors. “The main three things you see in people with any degree of autism is difficulty with social interaction, difficulty with communication skills, and rigid and repetitive behaviors.”

Programs like Mayfield’s help by giving autistic young adults a place within society.

“We know now that early intervention is the key in terms of developing life and social skills, and there’s a huge group of people on the autistic spectrum [those suffering from Asperger’s syndrome, Rett syndrome and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder] who didn’t have that benefit,” Stephens said.

Farming Independence, based out of Mayfield’s home and property in Agoura Hills, is aimed at that population.

“It’s an environment of nature and calm, which is great because a lot of people on the [autism] spectrum don’t like noise and hustle and bustle,” Stephens said.

Through the lens of farming, the program teaches topics ranging from gardening to salesmanship to packaging design.

“This program is filling a needed void,” Steve Hansen, web master and member of the organization’s advisory board, said. “Schools are not always up to date on how to deal with special needs, and once the young adults age out of high school, they aren’t getting enough support. They have a high school degree, but are they ready to participate in the world? Likely, no.”

Stephens said the program is helping individuals as well as the state.

“We know the autistic population is underemployed and unemployed, but they don’t have to be,” Stephens said. “They need to be asked, ‘What do you want to do?’ And then we’ll help them find a way to make that into a money-making job.”

Kevin Faustman, a 20-year-old with autism, is one of the program’s early success stories. At Farming Independence, Faustman was allowed to pursue and teach others about his passion-horses.

“There’s a certain connection between me and horses,” he said.

That connection, Stephens said, is one that can be healing.

“Kevin is so talented and knowledgeable, and he was able to come here and teach other clients a course on grooming and shoeing,” Ashley Turock, a volunteer job coach, said. “To see people learn from him has been amazing. This is definitely something he can make into a career.”

The next step for the quickly growing program is moving out of Mayfield’s home.

“As soon as we have the funding, we plan to buy or lease a farm in the Malibu area,” Mayfield said.

The nonprofit is also forging a relationship with the Los Angeles Unified School District to work with the district’s transition program that prepares students for work or college. And, Farming Independence is always reviewing and expanding programs based on client needs.

“We see what they’re passionate about that we don’t offer, and then we go and make it possible for them,” Turock said.

Next on the agenda is a Saturday music program for mild to moderately autistic individuals.

Also coming up is the first annual Farming Independence Harvest Festival fundraiser, on Oct. 9 from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Whispering Oaks Farm in Agoura Hills. The nonprofit is teaming up with local vineyards, chefs and restaurants such as Tra di Noi to provide food and wine pairings. A silent auction featuring work from local, world-renowned artists and autistic artists will also take place. Also, “American Idol” alum Tamyra Gray will be performing.

The heart of the program, though, lies in the individual stories. Karen Hansen, a member of the special events committee, was an elementary-school principal for 10 years and spent ample time with special needs children.

“I remember the frustration of parents regarding how to help these kids, not just in the school year, but for the rest of their lives,” she said. “With Farming Independence, you can see that goal being reached. Kevin’s face lights up when he’s with the horses, and he’s living proof that this is a great project. And he’s just one.”

More information about Farming Independence and the Harvest Festival can be obtained online at FarmingIndependence.org or by calling 818.865.1418.