David and Peaches Cunningham scan through Facebook. Bid Day. Roomates. Dorm move-ins. It’s September, and by now most parents with high school grads have sent their kids away to college and can’t wait to tell the world about it. But Peaches and David look across the table. And John David, their 19 year old East special education grad, is still there.
At East, John David was a household name. His laugh rang through the school hallways, and was often rewarded with smiles.
But high school is over. And the question that parents like David and Peaches have dreaded since the day John was born has to be answered. The question that every parent of a child with a developmental or intellectual disability is forced to deal with eventually.
‘What’s going to happen to him now?’
There are some things that parents and their kids can do, like the 18-21 program that SMSD and many other districts offer, or “sheltered workshops” where the workers make little widgets and screw in bolts.
“We knew we didn’t want [that] for John David,” David said. “That’s where the idea for another option came from.”
And that’s where the Farmer’s House comes in.
Opened by David and Peaches Cunningham along with Suzanne Zimmerman in 2012, the official motto of the house is to provide a “place for special farmers to live, work, play and grow.” But for those impacted by the Farmer’s House, their experiences far exceed that mission statement.
The Farmer’s House is a non-profit farmer’s market, apple orchard and farm destination that focuses on providing a place for adults with developmental disabilities to work and learn valuable job and life skills, but also to enjoy themselves.
And the world seems to slow down a bit at the Farmer’s House in Weston, Missouri. Live music, freshly smoked ribs, hot apple fritters with ice cold cider and laughter always seem to fill the country air.
At the Farmer’s House, these men and women learn everything that it takes to run a store: pricing goods, preparing food, running a cash register, cleaning, taking out the trash, stocking shelves and greeting customers.
One of the most crucial things the Farmer’s House does is prepare the farmers for the jobs they will have in the real world. And sometimes, those jobs can be hard to come by.
“A lot of times, businesses are afraid to hire people like our farmers,” Director of Programming at the Farmer’s House Kelly Cogan said. “They are afraid that it’ll take too much time, too many resources, cause too much of a distraction.”
But she’s seen first-hand what the farmers can do. She’s seen John David labelling pies. She’s seen Paige Braden, another East grad, greeting customers at the door with a smile and her usual spiel. She’s seen farmer Taylor Wolfe running the register, ringing up honey butter and cider.
“It’s pretty obvious to me that all you need is a little bit of patience and the right environment for these kids to thrive,” Cogan said. “They’ve all got so much redeeming value. And it just takes one person who’s willing to let them find it”.
The Farmer’s House isn’t just for the farmers. Take the city of Weston for example.
“[The people of Weston] just put their arms around the House as if it’s their own,” David said, “and I think it’s got a lot to do with the relationships they build with our farmers. Once they see what amazing people they are, all they want to do is help.”
Like Jerry, the neighbor who waters the garden every single day, even when the store is closed. Like the Weston Fire Department, who donated a pricey defibrillator to the House, just because the department thought they needed it.
“I mean who does something like that!?” Peaches said. “It’s moments like that when you just realize how much the Farmers mean to people.”
For the Cunninghams, caring for John David is a joy. But that joy comes with its challenges.
“It’s like when you’re at the beach, and you see all the waves out there on the water,” David said, “and sooner or later those waves start coming to shore. You can’t stop ‘em, you can’t slow down time. You just have to be tough, and remember what’s important.”
You have to remember.
To remember that the Farmers House can teach Paige and John David social skills, and can provide a sanctuary for those without one. But it can’t stop the waves.
David had grown up playing baseball. He loved it, he loved everything about it. He had always dreamed of coaching his son some day, and helping him find that love too. But as t-ball teams and baseball teams were formed, that day came and went.
Those waves keep rolling in. Next, it was overhearing the talk of sleepovers and birthday parties and playdates. But John wasn’t there.
“I know it sounds petty… but it’s just those small things that hurt,” David said.
Then comes the parties and dances in middle school, then dating, then football players and cheerleaders.
The sitting on the sidelines, with all the other proud parents, and knowing that they weren’t a part of it.
Life keeps going, and larger waves start to crash down on them.
Going to college.
But to Peaches and David, they just call those reality checks.
“It makes you appreciate what’s important, what you really need,” said Peaches. Her voice catches, as she looks at John David’s spot in the dining room. “And what you really need sits right across this table.”