Downs on the Farm enriches lives of special needs adults and kids through programming

Shawna Hodges has been passionate about rescue animals and sustainable produce for a long time.

Then her son Grady was born with Down Syndrome, and she found a way to combine her previous passions with the needs of her son by forming a non-profit organization known as Downs on the Farm 15 years ago. The focus of the group was providing children and adults with special needs the opportunity to be around animals and learn about sustainable farming.

“When (Grady) came into the world, I started to notice how our household pets were very in-tune and aware of him,” Hodges says. “I could just tell the animals were very in-tune in the way they would interact with him.

“I looked into equine therapy, which is very popular for people with disabilities, but it was about $130 for a 30-minute session and insurance would not cover it. I really wanted to provide a place where animals and those with special needs could connect and come together in a therapeutic setting without it costing $130 for 30 minutes. That just didn’t seem fair to me.”

Hodges was living in Colorado at the time and founded Downs on the Farm, a 501-C3 non-profit, as her way to help. The organization moved with the Hodges family to a farm in Lorain County about eight years ago, then moved again about 18 months ago to the Castalia Farms location at 7101 Heywood Road.

“We purchased the wedding venue called Castalia Farms, which is on more than 200 acres,” Hodges says. “The property is housing the non-profit and the animal sanctuary and disabled programming, but it’s also a place where people can go and have an event, and their costs are supporting this good cause.”

Since moving to Erie County, Downs on the Farm has partnered with Life Out Loud, an LLC that offers programming on the Castalia Farms property for adults with special needs. Adult programming is offered Monday through Friday, while the wedding and reception venues, along with a couple of Air BNB cottages, are normally busy on the weekends.

“We have quite a few families that schedule visits,” Hodges says. “We host birthday parties and have a commercial playground that our goats will often climb around with the kids.”

Farm animals are used in therapy sessions at Downs on the Farm. (Photo/Courtesy of Downs on the Farm)The menagerie of animals includes miniature horses, pet cows, alpacas, dogs, cats, a piglet, turkeys, chickens, rabbits and the star of the show, a 23-year-old tortoise known as Bob. All of the animals receive complete veterinarian and farrier care, along with food, shelter and shearing, and about 90% of them have been rescued from unfortunate circumstances.

“They are very spoiled at this animal sanctuary,” Hodges said. “When we’ve taken an animal out of a situation, they know it and they feel the difference. They feel the love, they feel the attention and they get pets and treats.

“It’s almost like the animals are appreciative in their own way for the care they receive.”

Adults and children with special needs are able to work with and build bonds with the animals.

“People with special needs can relate to them and the feeling of having unconditional love, no matter what their abilities may or may not be,” Hodges says. “The animals accept that and the kids feel it. It’s a really nice bond they can share.”

The move to Castalia Farms also allowed the organization to expand its work with sustainable food. A garden is part of the programming and there are plans to build a greenhouse on the property.

“I’ve always been a believer that our health is directly related to what we put into our bodies,” Hodges says. “It’s something I’m passionate about and I like to share with other people, which is why we are doing a huge garden with our disabled adults. We’re going to be teaching them a lot, and hopefully, they can take some of the produce home. It’s something that is a skill that isn’t necessarily taught in school, but I think is an important life skill.”

Castalia Farms property includes a hayfield and lake stocked for fishing, along with walking paths, and the buildings and courtyards used for weddings and other special events.

All visits to the property must be scheduled in advance, while programming offered will be listed at, as well as on social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook.

In addition, individuals can visit the Farm's website for more information on making reservations.

“We’re just trying to reach out as much as we can to this community of special-needs people and see what we can do to help enrich their lives,” Hodges adds.