A family’s journey to change the quality of life for differently abled individuals and develop ways to integrate them into their community.
There’s a warm feeling of acceptance and belonging the minute you drive up to Downsize Farm near the village of Woodstock in eastern Champaign County. It’s really hard to say why this is exactly, but it may be a combination of the bright yellow flowers blooming at the edge of the driveway, the warm nature of the special needs clientele, the helpful staff, and the welcoming smiles of owners Bob and Midge Custer.
One thing is for sure: There is a lot of determination, appreciation, and love on Downsize Farm.
The Custers, who are Pioneer members, moved to Champaign County from rural Wisconsin in 1989 when Bob became pastor at a local church. It didn’t take long before they settled in and began building a life and growing their family. But in 1994, the Custers’ way of life changed when their son Levi was born with Down syndrome.
ADJUSTING TO A NEW WAY OF LIFE
It was this life change that led Bob to learn as much as possible about developmental disabilities. He became involved with the Champaign County Board of Developmental Disabilities and began working for a foster care agency primarily serving families affected by
disabilities. In so many ways, Bob and Midge changed their focus to prepare for Levi’s future.
“We had to step back and ask ourselves, ‘What does life look like for the future of him?’” says Bob. “You have dreams and aspirations for your children, and we began trying to determine how to prepare for that.”
In 1999, the Custer family adopted Eric, who is now 24 years old and also has Down syndrome.
The Custers believed farming would positively impact their family, especially Levi and Eric. So in 2001, they purchased a rural Champaign County farm, which would eventually become the main hub for Downsize Farm.
In 2003, they began long-term fostering Randi, who is now 28 years old and has cri du chat syndrome, a congenital chromosome disorder.
In 2006, in what Bob considers part of “God’s providence,” the agency Bob worked for — which provided services to special needs individuals — lost its license. Due to some changes in the system, opportunities for developmentally disabled individuals were scarce after high school graduation, and county developmental disability boards needed independent providers. Some counties started various types of workshops to serve adult-aged special needs individuals, but they did not meet the Custers’ expectations. So, in 2007, the Custers took the leap to establish themselves as their own independent agency. Fortunately, Bob’s more than six years of agency experience allowed him to step into an executive director role.
The Custers decided they wanted their own familiarities dairy farming in Wisconsin, participating in 4-H, and taking part in other rural life activities for their children, which they believed would create a “learn by doing” mentality to build meaningful relationships and experiences. They began to apply this mindset to their new role as an independent provider.
And that’s how Downsize Farm began.
Downsize Farm, a Medicaid-certified agency serving individuals in five counties including Madison, Clark, Union, Logan, and Champaign, started in the Custer family home before migrating to the garage and finally to an old repurposed horse barn in 2010 to better accommodate their needs and growing number of clients.
“We were blessed to have this for our kids, and it’s now expanded to more than 60 individuals,” says Bob.
Downsize Farm works to enrich the quality of life of their clients through a structured, well-balanced schedule. The Custers employ 20 full-time and 10 part-time employees.
Bob says that while there are providers in larger cities with good services, he believes that local individuals should experience their own communities — and in the counties surrounding Downsize Farm, those communities are rural.
THE DOWNSIZE FARM EXPERIENCE
In the first few weeks of attending Downsize Farm, a staff member works with each client individually to determine his or her interests — what they call a discovery. For instance, do they want to do art, garden, work with animals, or participate in custom building activities?
“Here, we try to find out what their interests are and put them on a path,” Midge says. “We drive all over the place to get them places that fit their interests.”
The Custers believe productive activities, including volunteer activities, can translate into real jobs, noting that some of their clients eventually become client aides.
“It’s all about changing the paradigm by taking services to a rural setting and allowing those with disabilities to no longer just act as consumers but contributors. Their perspective and expectations of what can they do in life
changes because they develop relationships and become part of the community,” says Bob. “One of our main goals is to develop a sense of dignity and belonging.”
Many of their clients serve as volunteers, working at thrift stores, soup kitchens, food pantries, and Meals on Wheels — all to build necessary skills for community integration, to increase their sense of belonging, and to change the perception.
“We have a tremendous love for our clients. They are the sweetest, most loving, and stubborn people we’ve ever met,” Bob and Midge laugh together.
In addition to the farm’s day camp, the Custers have developed a job training center that prepares their clients with the soft skills and the applied skills they need for entry-level positions in food service, janitorial and landscaping, woodworking and carpentry, and manufacturing.
Downsize Farm’s “Just Right Jobs” program focuses on supported employment positions in the community.
“We are breaking the mold with vocational habilitation,” says Bob. “Even if they are not working right away, maybe they can [eventually].”
That’s where Just Right Jobs comes in, allowing local, community-based businesses to hire Downsize Farm clients. Local businesses hire clients for lawn and janitorial services, coffee bag labeling, recycling center work, and various other jobs.
The Custers’ daughter, Bobbi, who works as their business development director, also owns The Spotted Cow Coffeehouse, a coffee and sandwich shop in Urbana, where she employs developmentally disabled individuals. The building that houses her shop is a hub for community as well as Downsize Farm’s vocational clients, tying back perfectly to the Custers’ goal to integrate their clients in the community.
The Custers also have a location in Mechanicsburg where they are developing a horse program, which would include training and general interaction with the animals.
Bob and Midge will be the first to admit that running Downsize Farm requires a lot of flexibility, creativity, and love. But, in the end, it’s all worth it.
“Our clients are so genuine in their appreciation and excitement for everything — there are a whole lot of people who love them,” says Bob. “That’s to their credit. They are in the community, and people know them.”