Nature learning center has a way for more kids to get involved in Jefferson Twp.

Learning Tree Farm, the Jefferson Twp. facility that provides hands-on education about nature, has continued its move toward inclusion and accessibility with a new accessible pathway that allows more visitors to participate.

Learning Tree was founded 49 years ago by Jean Ryan and Sally Keys, two ex-nuns who had taught in inner-city schools. They created a space to welcome kids to a working farm where they could learn through doing.

Executive Director Heather Ritter said the new concrete path throughout the farm that was finished this spring will help more people learn.

“We engage all people in hands-on, nature-based learning on our farm,” Ritter said of the farm’s mission.

When Ryan and Keys founded the farm in 1973, they had a total of 200 visitors. From the beginning, it advertised the “non-discriminatory” inclusion of Learning Tree’s atmosphere.

Today, Learning Tree serves 15,000 visitors per year, including 7,500 from field trips by student groups and community organizations. One group that visits often is Empowered Community Services, a disability services and support organization.

A year ago, the pathway was all gravel and grass, making it difficult for anyone in a wheelchair. Ritter saw students spinning their wheels trying to get through the rough terrain.

“By the time they would get up to this area all the way from the parking lot, they were exhausted,” Ritter said. “It was just such a struggle for them to actually enjoy the farm and feel like they were included.”

After planning, grant applications and a collaboration with Disability Determination Services, Learning Tree Farm raised $76,000 and installed the new pathway. They sought advice from an architect and Kimberly Lovings, the farm’s finance and administrative director who has a disabled daughter who uses a wheelchair.

Their advice made the pathway possible, and its opening was celebrated with a ribbon-cutting ceremony June 3. Prior to that, Learning Tree hosted a group of 20 visitors from Empowered Community Services to test the pathway.

“One of the people from Empowered ... he rolled his wheelchair right up to the cow pen and was able to get his arm over and pet (one of the cows). And they weren’t able to do that before, but because it’s raised up, they can reach the cows,” Ritter said.

The staff experienced several challenges in the process of building the pathway, including supply chain issues, bedrock areas, weather delays and a balance between aesthetics. Ritter described this as the difference between achieving a look of “historic farm” or “paving paradise.”

“When you look at the advantage of being able to provide an inclusive experience to individuals, that is so much more important,” Ritter said.

Learning Tree continues to add to the accessibility initiative, with a new accessible picnic table and plans for a raised garden and mats to the make the story book garden wheelchair accessible.

“It’s changed all for the better, especially with the present staff that we have and our director,” Ryan said.

“They’ve taken what we started and they’ve embellished on it and improved it.”


Learning Tree Farm

Where: 3376 South Union Rd., Jefferson Twp.

Hours:

Monday-Saturday: 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

Sunday: 12:30 p.m. -4 p.m.

Cost: $5 per person or $20 per family. Children under 2 are free.

Phone: 937-866-8650

Email: info@learningtreefarm.org

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