Community farm nourishes adults who need special care
Member Michael DeBellis in the fields
Set back off Manitou Road, alongside the Erie Canal in Spencerport, sits the fifty-five-acre Homesteads for Hope Community Farm. Homesteads for Hope is a nonprofit, inclusive community farm that was founded to serve people of all abilities in the Rochester region. Cofounded by the now twenty-nine-year-old CEO Jennyrae Brongo and her mother, Luann Brown, in 2013, its mission is to provide a place to “Learn, Work, Live & Grow.”
“There are not enough services for the transitioning young adult after they graduate high school, and we needed a place for people to truly and sustainably just belong, [to] be a part of something that was not agency based but was inclusive,” Brongo explains.
After graduating from Alfred State College in construction management engineering, Brongo had plans to one day take over the family construction business, Brongo Supply, and develop group homes for children with special needs. When her father passed away at an early age, not only did she take over responsibility for the business, but, along with Brown, Brongo was cocaregiver to her brother Chucky, a nonverbal young autistic adult with severe challenges such as extreme obsessive-compulsive disorder, the inability to handle change, and self-injurious behaviors.
Although options for autistic adults exist, such as agency-based day programs, work programs, and group homes, there are obstacles when an individual has many needs and challenging behaviors. At that time, there was no program support or a group home in New York State for a young adult like Chucky, causing Brongo and Brown to look for programs outside of the state, which they found in New Hampshire.
After four years of group home living, they brought Chucky back home to Rochester.
Discouraged by the lack of support, feeling the need to change her daily routine with her brother, in 2012 Brongo took him down the road to their uncle’s farm for the first time, where they went for a walk along the wide waters of the Erie Canal. To her amazement, a smile came over Chucky’s face as he gazed at the sunflowers towering over him, waving in the breeze, enveloped by the sunshine. He was in his element. She knew then what he needed, as he wasn’t exhibiting any of his extreme behaviors in those very moments. There was hope for Chucky. The idea was born.
Brongo and Brown decided that they were going to change lives on their terms. As Brongo explains, “My mother’s vision, as she was the true founder, was that it was a place to belong. It was a collaborative venue for all backgrounds: veterans, seniors, and those with mental health issues. She wanted a place of peace for people.”
While Brown stayed at home to be a caregiver to her son, Brongo traveled the country visiting various inclusive communities to understand their business models. Once back home, she and Brown developed the farm model and looked for financial support from the general community to put their vision into motion. Since Homesteads for Hope isn’t an agency, it doesn’t receive direct funding from the government. With the assistance of a loan from the Disability Opportunity Fund, based in New York City, Homestead for Hope Community Farm opened in 2016.
The farm model entails three phases of development. Phase I begins with the renovation of the historic barns, which would allow for programming all year round, the creation of a farm school, multi-farm Community Supported Agriculture Vocational Program, and the first non-certified residence. Phase II expands the farm to serve more people by opening it up as a venue for the general public. In doing so, more programs and services can be created. Phase III calls for the construction of a thirty-acre noncertified residential village that will house 150 people, those with and without disabilities.
The Community Farm is membership based, offering individual, family, and corporate memberships. Currently, there are about eighty paid memberships. Programs such as the Ready! Set! Work! Experience, Community Farm Explorers, the Social Garden Experience, and Fun on the Farm, plus a host of other activities, offer young adults of all abilities the opportunity to learn skills that will help them succeed in the future.
Despite the fact that Homesteads for Hope started as a dream for Brongo’s brother and her family, it has turned into something larger for the whole community. A member since 2018, Michael DeBellis, forty, of Spencerport, while not diagnosed as autistic, has had intellectual disabilities since two years of age. His communications skills and his speech are a large part of what holds him back, according to his parents, Ed and Linda DeBellis.
Throughout Michael’s life, his parents had looked for programs and job opportunities that would enhance his life and allow him to reach his dreams. Frustrated by the competitive wage job market that didn’t prove to be successful for Michael, as the training programs at these jobs were too short for someone with intellectual disabilities, the DiBellises sought out other alternatives. They found Michael a volunteer maintenance job in a nursing home, which he stayed with for thirteen years.
One day Linda noticed a brochure for the Homesteads for Hope Community Farm at a local restaurant. Looking for more information about the programs they offered, she decided that her family needed to attend one of Brongo’s public presentations about the farm.
They instantly connected with her story and right away enrolled Michael in programs. The feeling on the farm is laid back, the pace is slower, and the things that the members are doing are repetitive, allowing them to learn and work on their skills as time goes on. “He’s happy. That’s what every parent wants for their children: to be in a happy place and have value,” explains Linda. “He’s part of every plant that comes out of the ground.”
Active at Homesteads four days per week, Michael would like to one day live and work on the farm. He feels at home there. As his father explains, “this is like a dream for him come true.” His love of the farm is indicated in all the tasks he has learned, such as setting up the store, planting, starting the seeds, weeding, using the weed wacker, harvesting, and driving the Kabota around the property.
The families and members are all supportive of one another. Lifelong friendships have been built. “This place gives you a real sense of belonging, and I think that is key,” explains Linda. The DeBellises volunteer themselves when needed—the farm is “an answer to our dream because it makes our son happy.” As Michael says, Homesteads for Hope Community Farm is simply “remarkable.”
Not long after opening Homesteads for Hope, Brown, the true visionary of the farm, was diagnosed with cancer. She lost her battle in 2018. Despite the sadness, Brongo keeps moving forward in her memory. The goal is to have all three phases completed by 2023, marking the ten-year anniversary of its founding.
Now Homesteads serves more than 100 people full time throughout the week. The barns are currently being renovated and the farm is near completion. However, even with a lot of sweat equity already spent, it needs support to grow. They need electrical installations, roofing, siding, concrete floors, and an addition built on to the existing eighteenth-century historical home. Agritourism is gaining in popularity, bringing mainstream amenities and services to the farm, providing support to the students who run it, and helping it grow. Recently, Homesteads for Hope opened to the public as a wedding venue, with its first one booked for August.
As Brongo explains, “this is the future of young adults of all abilities with an opportunity to learn how to work, live a fulfilled life, and essentially grow to be a self-sufficient member of society.” Once self-sustaining, this “replicable, intentional community” will extend beyond Rochester, as she plans to take her business model on the road and assist in establishing similar organizations in other communities.
For those interested in becoming a community partner or volunteering with Homesteads for Hope Community Farm, you may visit the website, HomesteadsforHope.org or contact info@HomesteadsforHope.org.
Kate Melton is an editorial and commercial photographer based in Rochester. You can see her work at katemelton.com and follow her on Instagram at @KateMeltonPhoto.