The stares and whispers were one thing, but when somebody broke in and stole their pet chickens, many of the developmentally disabled adults of Farm to Fork felt like the world was against them.

In the weeks that followed, something encouraging happened. Strangers reached out and offered to help in myriad ways, easing the hurt and transforming the feeling of alienation into a more complex understanding.

"The biggest thing is they realized there are kind and caring people out there," Farm to Fork co-founder and executive director Jennifer Van Buskirk said. "Because at first they felt that people didn't like them."

The thefts were a tough lesson, but it strengthened the tight bond shared by those who utilize the activity center day program, many of whom spend six hours a day, five days a week there.

Van Buskirk, who is a former agriculture teacher at East Nicolaus High, and her husband, Matt Van Buskirk, formed the nonprofit in 2011 and it opened in 2012. They have six staff members, and the help of their two daughters — Gaby, 17, and Katie, 11.

The center serves 27 adults with developmental disabilities — some who live in group homes, others with family or alone — and they learn independent living skills through gardening, raising animals, cooking, pottery, painting and crafts.

Fred Scholl, 66, was one of the first clients of Farm to Fork after it opened in 2012. Prior to coming to the center, he bounced around various programs but was bored.

Scholl, who worked for 30 years cleaning and doing maintenance at rest areas in Maxwell and Dunningan, grew up on a farm in Sutter and fondly recalls having hens as a child. Now he is able to spend his days taking care of chickens and helping around the garden.

"I was on my own. I needed guidance," Scholl, who lives in a group home in Live Oak, said. "I didn't have much luck finding friends, but I have a lot of friends here."

All Farm to Fork clients have their way paid by Alta California Regional Center, and the Van Buskirk's fund the rest of the program, although donations help with art and garden supplies.

While learning to garden, raise animals and cook are unique features of Farm to Fork, the social component is powerful.

Prior to coming to Farm to Fork, Danny Lopez lived a relatively sheltered life. Here, he thrives.

Trapped inside his body's speech limitations, Danny Lopez is sharp and caring. During his two years at the center, he has begun to emerge from his shell.

At Farm to Fork, he learned how to take care of animals, becoming comfortable enough to take his pet rabbit, Blacky, to the home he shares with his father, where it lives in his bedroom.

His peers call him "Boss Man Dan" and he often can be found at the side of program director Jolene Woodford with his folder in hand ready to help out.

Kim Bracamonte, 52, is relatively new. She began attending Farm to Fork a little less than a year ago after taking a tour of the facility.

Like many clients, she was drawn to the animals but once she began attending, the atmosphere is what made her stay.

"This (program) is like family," Bracamonte said. "I like calling Jolene 'Mom.' Everyone does. I love this place."

Where the programs and services come from

In 1969, the Lanterman Mental Retardation Act provided the basis for a regional center system that now includes the Alta California Regional Center. At the time, people with developmental disabilities often resided in overcrowded state hospitals.

Over the years, the Lanterman Act was updated and expanded. ACRC was born out of this shift in treatment and now helps those with such disabilities develop critical personal skills.

The center is a private nonprofit corporation funded by the California Department of Developmental Services that provides services to more than 1,000 people with developmental disabilities from the Yuba City office alone.

Each ACRC client has a service coordinator who helps them find programs that fit their needs and desires and pays for them to attend.

"We fund the service for the clients that attend there," ACRC Yuba City supervisor Terry Rhoades said. "We pay for them to attend, and the funding helps to pay for the program itself."

For Sheila Baggett, 41, the Farm to Fork program was a way to live independently after her grandmother, whom she lived with, died about a year ago.

"I lost my grandma, and they wanted to put me in a group home. I didn't want that. I wanted to move out," Baggett said.

Though Baggett had many of the skills she needed to live on her own, Farm to Fork provided a support system and helped her become more independent.

The ACRC works with several day programs in the area, including PRIDE, Easter Seals, Passages, Colusa Support Services and Community Resource Center.

The Community Resource Center has seven programs under its purview: A-Maid-4-U, Learning Center, Sunshine Gardens, The Bakery, Gridley Adult Program, W.I.S.E. Program and the Creative Art Center.

"We are always focused on enhancing the opportunities and the lives of people," Rhoades said. "Giving them the opportunity to excel, learn and be a part of the community."

More day programs

One of the more popular day programs is the Creative Art Center in Yuba City, where 54 people create and sell their artistic visions.

The center opened in 1992 at a location in Marysville but moved to a larger, brighter building on Plumas Street in 2000, where the number of participants more than doubled, program director Gail Koll said.

Participants create art using more than a dozen mediums, including painting, ceramics, needlepoint, wood and mosaic.

They sell their art at the Plumas Street center and enter it in the Yuba-Sutter Fair. For every piece of art sold, 80 percent goes to the artist and 20 percent purchases more art supplies for the center, Koll said.

Koll leads a staff of 10, all of whom have art backgrounds, and they help the clients set prices for their artwork.

"A lot really want to work and I've had so many say, 'I'm an artist,'" Koll said.

Like Farm to Fork, the art center also helps its clients learn other personal skills, such as: self-advocacy, household management and nutrition.

Another large day program is Easter Seals, which offers many similar services plus day trips and performing arts for its 68 clients, performing arts coordinator Shannon Bufford said.

Easter Seals had a booth set up at the "Fun in the Sun" Summer Stroll on Plumas Street in Yuba City on Saturday selling artwork created by its clients.

The Easter Seals eighth annual talent show "Music of the Millennium" will be July 15 from 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. at Hope Point Church of the Nazarene.

CONTACT Reporter Kirk Barron at 749-4796.

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