LEICESTER — It’s a safe place where kids can learn life skills, feel a sense of accomplishment and give back to the community.
The place is the Foxcroft Farm Harvest Program.
The program was established 16 years ago to help students in middle school in Rutland and Addison counties who struggled in a traditional classroom setting but could do better as hands-on learners, said Anne Young, Foxcroft Farm executive director.
The program evolved to include up to 12 students through 10th grade, who divided their time between the classroom and the farm as well as six weeks during the summer.
“As we got going with this project, we recognized that we could use the farm as a tool to help these kids learn and engage in their learning,” Young said.
The 60-acre farm on Delorm Road in Leicester offers students real-life experience in growing vegetables and taking care of a variety of animals, including turkeys, chickens, sheep and beef cattle.
“Most of what is done through this farm now is given back to serve the local communities,” Young said, “whether it’s beef for different events or eggs to senior citizens on a year-round basis, veggies to seniors during the growing season.”
The students also engage in woodworking, building Adirondack furniture that is then donated to local communities for raffles to raise money.
“We have found that with giving back to the community, that it’s not only helping our kids to feel a sense of purpose, but it’s helping our communities to recognize these kids as assets,” she said.
The success of the program is closely linked to the relationship Foxcroft Farm has with local schools.
Starting in 2010, Foxcroft changed direction, serving more students during the school day and after school.
Eight middle-school students spend half their school day at the farm, and 12 to 14 middle- and high-school students are enrolled in the after-school program.
Participating schools include Leicester Central School, Neshobe School and Otter Valley Union High School.
Fifth and sixth graders take part in an after-school program called Growing to Know, an educational enrichment program; seventh and eighth graders participate in the Growing to Volunteer project, which encourages involvement in helping others; for high school students there is the Growing to Work project, which focuses on being prepared for the workplace.
Earl Corey and Christine Noonan of Leicester Central School have nothing but good things to say about the Foxcroft program.
A couple of days a week the Foxcroft bus picks up students for the after-school program, which includes an assortment of activities from working with the farm animals to helping prepare food items for senior citizens. “There’s a strong interest, especially in grades five and six, that go over there after school,” said Corey, the Leicester principal.
The option of taking part in the program is left strictly up to the students and their parents.
Noonan, who teaches pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, said her classes visit the farm two or three times a month, learning about farm life and life in general.
“We spend a lot on emotional skills and building a foundation for empathy,” she said. “One of the things Anne [Young] often tells us is `it’s not about me, it’s about we,’ and that idea of giving back.”
Peter Lebenbaum, president of Foxcroft’s board of directors, said Foxcroft has been “extraordinarily helpful” for kids.
“The program has an extraordinary rate of success as far as graduation is concerned, and that metric of high school graduations is related to a lot of indices of success in later life,” Lebenbaum said.
He added that a predictor of failure is poor attendance in school, and Foxcroft helps students remain attached to their school through a program that engages them, and keeps them engaged in learning.
“The farm just presents a lot of opportunities, a variety of opportunities for many skills, not just in development of character, but in work skills that kids are really going to need some day,” said Young, whose family owned the farm before it was converted to a nonprofit.
“They are learning to become responsible,” she said. “They’re learning to be productive. They’re given a sense of purpose, because what they’re doing is helping others through what they’re doing.”
Foxcroft Farm Harvest Program has an annual budget of $175,000. The program counts on grants, taxpayer support from Brandon and Leicester, farm revenue, fundraisers and donations from groups like the United Way.
Foxcroft Farm has received several awards and honors over the years for its work with youth, including the Brandon Area Chamber of Commerce President’s Award, Secretary of State Human Services Award, and one from the United Way of Rutland County.
The farm’s community projects include:
Weekly donations of fresh eggs and organic produce throughout the growing season to 75 senior citizens at Brandon’s Conant Square Inn and Neshobe House, and Pittsford’s Village Manor.
Creating individual holiday gift bags for 90 seniors, filled with homemade Harvest jam, applesauce, maple syrup and cider.
For Thanksgiving, students fix a holiday dinner from their own farm-raised turkeys and vegetables, with homemade pies, and deliver to both Neshobe House and Conant Square residents.
The students raise and donate turkeys, beef, pork and squash for several community dinners.
They decorate the senior centers for fall with cornstalks, gourds and pumpkins, and again at Christmas with handmade wreaths and boughs.
Gift certificates for Harvest products and gift baskets are donated throughout the year to several community fundraisers.
Maple syrup is given out to senior citizens, fundraising events, grade school visitors, U.S. troops overseas and to attendees of the annual Brandon Parade.
Barbecue pigs are raised and donated for community events and nonprofit fundraisers.
Students bake homemade goodies for community events.
Foxcroft Farm kids also participate in creating, constructing and supporting local school gardens.