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Yvonne Abraham

Growing a community

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / August 14, 2011

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BROOKFIELD - Stephanie grips the saddle for dear life. The ponytailed 12-year-old isn’t sure about Honey the horse.

“Honey is very sweet,’’ says Lizzie Flaherty, the therapist leading her round a field.

“Is she sweet?’’ Stephanie asks. “Will I fall?’’

“No!’’ Flaherty says. “Can you pat her on the neck and say ‘Good Girl’ ’’? Stephanie hesitates, reaches down to stroke Honey’s neck. The horse neighs, and the air fills with the girl’s trilling laughter.

This is what they do at Elm Hill Center, a 40-acre farm in bucolic Brookfield: They convince people, including those with developmental disabilities, that they can do things they hadn’t imagined. Along the way, Elm Hill provides a pretty perfect model of how great communities work.

The farm is a down-at-heel in places. Built in the 1700s, it was once one of the largest farms in the area, with eight houses, orchards, and horse and cattle operations. Elsie the cow was bred here.

After owner Blanchard Means died in 1973, his wife, Louise, set up a foundation to preserve the farm as a refuge for disabled people like her daughter, an autistic woman who still lives nearby.

But beating back decay on a property like this is a battle, and not one the Blanchard Means Foundation was winning. Enter Bonnie Keefe-Layden, who is no stranger to battle. A recently retired Army reservist who rose through the ranks to become a colonel, she leads a nonprofit called Rehabilitative Resources Inc. that serves disabled people.

When she visited Elm Hill for the first time a couple years ago, Keefe-Layden, 61, saw more than the animals in the leaky stables, the mansion and other buildings in decline, the daunting balance sheet: She saw a place her clients - and everybody else - could love.

It’s also a place where they can feel useful. Side by side, disabled and other volunteers have helped restore the mansion, which is now rented for overnight stays, weddings, and community events. Adults in Keefe-Layden’s day programs, many of whom lead pretty sedentary lives, regularly come to Elm Hill to work in the stables.

“They jump out of the van and grab their buckets,’’ she says. “They don’t have jobs, but they can take care of the farm.’’

Men from Hope House, a drug treatment center, work at Elm Hill because here, “they can be just young men,’’ she says. A local scout troop built a pretty trail around the Frog Pond. Also hooked, Keefe-Layden spends all of her free time weeding and planting the gardens.

The farm runs without state or federal money. Foundations and grants pay for most of the restoration and programming. The wider community, drawn here for Halloween and Christmas events, kicks in at galas and other fund-raisers. Keefe-Layden hopes Elm Hill will eventually become self-sufficient, funded by rent from the stables and the mansion and by summer program fees.

On the day I toured the farm with Keefe-Layden, who tromped about in an elegant dress and muck boots covered in little dogs, the place was crawling with people.

As Stephanie rode Honey, a bunch of other camp kids played in the pool, ate lunch on picnic tables, and raced around on the lawn. Another group was doing art projects in a cavernous dairy barn. It was hard to tell the disabled kids from the others. Which is the whole point.

Spend a day here, and you’re struck by the farm’s beautiful synergy. It’s impossible to decide who gets more out of the place: Kids like Stephanie? The able-bodied kids? The volunteers? Or the farm, coaxed back to glory by all of them?

We’re always talking about how much it helps disabled people to be part of the community. Elm Hill shows how good it is for all of us.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Abraham@globe.com