The Open Sky Co-operative sits on an 11-acre tract of land by the Tantramar Marsh, where autumnal, straw-green fields stretch for miles until they meet clear sky on the far-off horizon. Unobstructed by tall trees or large buildings, the view from Open Sky clearly inspired the co-op’s name.
Open Sky offers young adults with self-identified mental or developmental impairments the opportunity to learn vocational skills in a supportive environment. Participants can choose between day programs and longer-term residential arrangements, with fees determined on a case-by-case basis to best suit applicants’ individual and financial needs.
Modelled after the European care farm, the charitable co-op combines farming with vocational training and mental health care. “We started [Open Sky] because we felt that the farm environment – working with plants and animals – was inherently healing,” said Margaret Tusz-King, executive director of Open Sky.
With a background in adult education, Tusz-King incorporates alternative teaching methods into Open Sky’s program.
“We had to come up with different ways of teaching,” Tusz-King said. “Most of our learning tools that you and I are successful in are written words, and not all of us learn well that way.”
Methods such as emphasizing schedules and the use of visuals characterize Open Sky’s educational curriculum. Posters decorate the recreational and outdoor spaces and kitchen. Inside the barn, step-by-step photographs outline the task of distributing hay bales to the goats and donkeys.
Third-year Mount Allison student Diane Ortiz-MacLeod contributes to the co-op’s visually oriented curriculum by overseeing an art program.
“When it comes to art programs, they’re not always readily accessible to people with disabilities,” Ortiz-MacLeod said. “I want to make the arts a more accessible learning tool.”
Liz Kent, an Open Sky employee and Mt. A graduate, said that daily activities at Open Sky may seem initially trivial, but in fact provide essential practices that gear participants to become and feel more independent.
“It might seem like ‘why am I getting paid for this?’ at first,” Kent said. “[Since] a lot of the things we focus on are activities.”
Activities like tending to the farm’s gardens and animals, playing board games and working on DIY projects under Ortiz’s art program offer participants the opportunity to apply new tools at their own pace with the support of mentors.
Secondary schools often fail to equip youth living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) with the necessary tools to thrive after graduation. Consequently, young adults with ASD are less likely than their peers to hold a job or be enrolled in postsecondary education.
In addition, onsets of most mental health illnesses occur during secondary school years, creating another impediment for youth finding employment after graduation.
Tusz-King and many other parents of children with disabilities refer to this transition period as a cliff. “People who have kids with disabilities talk about ‘the cliff’ at the end of formal schooling; there’s a cliff that everyone falls off,” Tusz-King said. “There’s not a lot to catch them.”
Offering a safety net, “[Open Sky] is a possibility where a possibility may not have been,” Kent said, referring to the educational gap the co-op fills.
“It sounds like a lame metaphor, but we have stuff growing,” Kent said, alluding not only to the vegetables in the gardens, but also to the youth who arrive at Open Sky and “find their own way of being independent.”
Open Sky seeks to hire and train students as volunteers and paid staff over summer and into the school year. The co-op offers training in organic farming and sells its organic produce at the Sackville Farmers Market.
To learn more, direct any questions to Tusz-King at [email protected] or visit www.openskyco-op.ca.