NEWBURY — Every Wednesday morning, six students and four teachers from Amesbury High School's severe special needs classroom pack up in their van and head to Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm in Newbury. Once there, Phil, Krissy, Sarah, Tiffani, Nicole and Alex take turns petting and feeding the animals food that they helped mix.
The program, which has been in place for nearly two years after being started by retired teacher Linda Young, is led by Mike McLaughlin, the farm's guide, who helps students learn about working on a farm.
"They seem to really enjoy it here," McLaughlin said. "And it's great to have them here. It's wonderful to see them really brighten up when they get here."
The students always begin the morning by making mash, which is a combination of alfalfa cubes and grains, which they feed to the animals. They feed the chickens and check for any new eggs before heading over to feed the sheep, goats and beloved horse, Molly. McLaughlin said that sometimes the students will bring their own treats, usually carrots or bread.
"I think this is a great program," special education teacher Anna Tantaro said. "This is a life skills classroom for the severely disabled, and this really teaches them life skills like compassion, caring for animals, and helps them practice being thoughtful."
Yesterday, the students helped feed Earl, a three-legged black sheep. He eats a special mix that includes crushed up aspirin for his arthritis. They were also able to touch three warm eggs that had just been laid in the chicken coop.
"These kids are kinesthetic learners, and this is the perfect environment for that because it covers all the senses," Tantaro said.
In nicer weather, the students are able to pick up odd jobs like picking up sticks and helping with cleanup, but they especially love going on hayrides with McLaughlin.
"It's great for them to socialize in a different atmosphere — with fresh air and sunshine," Tantaro said, noting that walking outdoors and playing in the fields also helps the students exercise.
Some students from the classroom also do a therapeutic horseback riding program, and all are involved in a vocation in the community, which Tantaro said the program helps with, as it teaches students responsibility, kindness and how to work with others.
"We like to collaborate with organizations outside the classroom and in the community," Tantaro said.
With education funding being cut, Tantaro said the beauty of the program is that Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm donates the time, farm and materials for the students. The farm is owned by nonprofit Historic New England, which maintains historic homes throughout the region.
"Many of these kids wouldn't normally get the opportunity to get out onto a farm," Tantaro said. "So this is really beneficial — you're really helping these kids, and they love it."