Sophomore John David Cunningham scooches over to the passenger seat of the John Deer tractor to let his dad, David drive. The green-yellow machine, his sixteenth birthday present, roars to life.
The drive from the family’s cottage across the street to the market lasts only a few minutes. His orange shirt reads, “A place where special farmers live, work, play and grow.” He smiles as he squints into the wind.[media-credit id=171 align=”alignright” width=”186″][/media-credit] When tractor arrives at the Farmer’s Market and his smile grows larger. This market is his home.
The Cunninghams started the Farmer’s Market, a nonprofit market in Weston, Mo., in April for their autistic son, John David. Since it opened, the market has allowed more than 80 farmers between the ages of high school and retirement to acquire work experience by pricing in the stockroom, kitchen and cash register.
John David was diagnosed with autism at the age of two. According to USA Today, one in three autistic adults are unable to find jobs by the age of 25, so the Cunninghams immediately began planning for John David’s future.
“We’re hoping that their experience here is going to be good work experience for them to be able to go into town and get a real job,” John David’s mom, Peaches, said. “We’re also hoping that we could be a part of getting other businesses like ours and just other businesses in the area, and in Kansas City, everywhere, to start hiring special farmers.”
The Farmer’s Market is also a special place for East sophomore Mackenzie Sweat, a family friend of the Cunninghams.
“The farmer’s house is a really special place for those kids who don’t really feel like they have a place at school or maybe at their house and they’re treated differently,” Sweat said.
Farmers have a choice of what they would like to do for their day of work. Sophomore Paige Braden, a special education student who volunteers at the Market, likes to greet customers at the front door of the market with a flyer explaining the Farmer’s House program. John David likes to show customers around the market. He can be found drifting between the kitchen making apple fritters to the cash register telling customers what his favorite products are.
Originally an apple orchard, the apple plants died leading to the farm being put on sale. David and Peaches bought the farm in December of last year and began redecorating it in January. The family bought a cottage across the street to be closer to the Market. The apple processors were taken out and the upstairs was redecorated to be a dining hall. Peaches began decoration of the store. She filled it with favorite brands and local delicacies.
The Cunninghams realize the large financial load a dependent autistic child can put on a family and hope that John David will be able to find work after high school.[media-credit name=”Photo Courtesy of the Cunningham Family” align=”alignleft” width=”300″][/media-credit] “We wonder if John David will ever be able to be independent,” Peaches said, “Or is he always going to need someone to live with him? How are we going to do that?”
Once the program is running strong, the Cunninghams hope to build a home for autistic adults, giving them a safe place to live. The Cunningham’s ultimate goal is that the house will catch on all over the country and more houses will pop up.
“My hope is that there will be a farmer’s house in every pocket of the city, and in every state because there are so many kids that need it and there are not enough and especially residential.” Peaches said.
The Cunninghams think of offering these life skills as a way of giving the farmers and their families hope.
“The Farmer’s House is hope, for kids like John David to have a safe, happy place, for them to work, play, feel like they’re a part of it, a part of something good,” Peaches said.