A new approach to caring for young adults with developmental, cognitive and intellectual disabilities is quietly rooting and growing in a cozy mustard-colored house behind a West Ashley strip mall.

To learn more

For more about Healing Farms, go to healingfarms.com or call 971-9300.

The dozen or so participants at Healing Farms Ministries recently graduated high school, and said good-bye to all of the structure and help that the school system provided them.

By the numbers


People in U.S. who have severe physical or mental disabilities


People in the labor force with disabilities


Unemployment rate for people with disabilities


Portion of caregivers who lack a plan as their disabled loved one ages


People in the labor force without disabilities


Unemploymen rate for people without disabilities

Source: U.S. Department of Labor numbers for June 2013

Graduation meant no more school bus for transportation.

No more school days.

No more special education teachers or individualized education plans or transition counselors.

Instead, most found themselves unemployed and dependent on their parents for 24-hour care, potentially creating family stress levels that one study found can mirror that of combat soldiers.

It’s why Healing Farms operates with a singular goal: to keep these twentysomethings, and their caregivers, from plunging over what cofounder Mary Tutterow calls “The Cliff.”

“Parents don’t see this cliff coming and don’t understand that even if their children do get jobs, they probably won’t be 9 to 5,” Tutterow says. “You need to plan for these guys like you do for college: college that lasts for 20 years.”

The year-old nonprofit asks each participant: What are your skills, and how can you contribute? To answer those questions, Healing Farms is organized around PODs (People Overcoming Disabilities), each of which bring four young adults with disabilities into a group with one professional facilitator and two to four interns or volunteers.

Together, they explore activities that could lead to job skills and the discovery of new talents. This includes everything from arts and movement to gardening and cooking to computers to tasks such as laundry.

Tutterow and her husband, Winn, launched Healing Farms to address a question they, too, faced first hand: “What will my child do after high school?”

Their 21-year-old daughter, Mary Addison, is diagnosed with autism and a seizure disorder that requires constant supervision.

Three Healing Farms PODs operate out of the yellow house, offering a small but promising drop of hope amid a rising tide of need.

In the long term, Tutterow hopes to create Healing Farms PODs all over town as the rates of children diagnosed with autism and other disabilities soar.

“People are already beating down the door,” Tutterow says. “But we are just one little, tiny growing option, one little speck of light.”

Skills, fun and food

Go through Healing Farm’s back door, just past a garden dense with tomatoes, peppers and herbs. Inside, young adults are preparing dinner from scratch for their parents using their garden’s bounty and their own creativity.

The scent of tonight’s main course, pizza bagels, wafts through the house. Participants prepared the marinara sauce from scratch and selected topping such as pineapple and olives.

Michelle Annibale sits at a nearby table, strapping on shiny white heels amid the bustle. Once buckled, she stands and inspects her readiness for dinner, dressed in a striped jacket with a floral shirt and fuchsia pants.

“I look good!” she announces.

“I look good!” she repeats several times, each more loudly.

At 22, Michelle might be one of the most recognizable faces of creative young adults in Charleston, and a model of what Healing Farms seeks.

Michelle, who has Down Syndrome and bipolar disorder, unearthed her talent for creating vibrant batik thanks to a master artist she met through a high school program.

Today, Michelle works on her creations in the Healing Farms art room and at home. Her mom, Holly, created MHA Batik and spent thousands of her own dollars when she found few other resources to help Michelle develop or market her talent.

“She has a child with a gift,” Tutterow says. “But because of our system, there is no organizational support for her work on a sustainable basis.”

Creating a model

Tutterow hopes Healing Farms’ PODs will become a model of sustainable care and preparation for young adults.

Each POD maintains a roughly 1:1 ratio between participants and other adults, including volunteers. There is one paid adult facilitator per POD, typically a teacher or psychology major. The rest are volunteers, mostly from local colleges.

Healing Farms charges $5 an hour, a competitive tuition that covers one-quarter of its costs.

A Christian ministry, Healing Farms also relies on private donors, including Seacoast Church.

The nonprofit receives no government funds. However, Tutterow hopes the model will be effective enough that government agencies will create a special voucher to support models like it.

Eventually, the fourth funding source for a sustainable model could come from products and services the young adults create based on what they discover in their PODs.

For instance, gardening and cooking are popular among the PODs. So, they could create their own recipes and products.

PODS are working on ideas, including a green tomato pickle because they grow so many in the house’s garden.

The house also sits close enough to walk to potential employers and stores that could sell participants’ goods. Granna’s Gourmet, a specialty food company that moved in nearby, may sell its products one day.

“Healing Farms wants to create a brand that does neat things,” Tutterow says.

Social times

Sitting at a table, Joel Bulgarino watches his friend, David Hume, pace across Healing Farms’ living room.

David focuses laser beam-like on time and schedules, especially when he’s anxious about them. And tonight is a double-whammy of expectation.

First, the parent dinner.

Second, Chipper Jones’ number is being retired, and David is a huge Atlanta Braves fan. Wearing his Jones shirt, he paces.

By design or coincidence, Joel distracts him.

“Who else works at Goodwill?” Joel asks as David walks by. “Sam works at Sonic,” David answers, pacing away.

“Who else works at Goodwill?” Joel repeats as David approaches.

“Dustin works at Goodwill,” David answers.

“Who else works at Goodwill?” Joel asks.

Joel is one of the few here who works part time at a restaurant, even though most parents thought their children would find jobs after graduation.

David’s high school transition counselor thought he would find part-time or supported employment because he could learn job-related tasks such as sorting and packing.

But by the time he graduated in 2009, jobs were scarce.

“All that went out the window with the economy,” says his mother, Joy Hume. “And none of those opportunities have come back.”

About 21 percent of people with disabilities took part in the workforce this spring, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates.

Meanwhile, thousands of South Carolinians sit on waiting lists for government programs that help parents defray costs for things, including home care.

“We have this exploding group of people with these very limited options,” Tutterow says.

At first, David stayed with his father, who worked from home. But his father’s work became too demanding to provide good supervision.

His mother, a guidance counselor, retired so she could be home with her 25-year-old son.

Dinner time

Just before dinner is served, Darnella White runs the gauntlet of excited greeters at the front door. Her daughter, Ebony, is quick with hugs of welcome to the parent dinner.

White thanks God that Ebony has a place to go where she feels she is loved and safe.

White recalls sitting down with her husband when Ebony, who has Down Syndrome, was about to graduate high school.

Her husband is an electrician and she a medication program assistant at MUSC. They have two children in college.

What would they do with Ebony while they worked?

“There’s just not much offered anymore,” White says.

White considered leaving the job she loves, and which provides them benefits, to stay home or find a night shift job to care for Ebony, who’s now 22.

Instead, she did neither.

“Healing Farms answered our prayers,” White says. “They are wonderful people who love our child as much as we do.”

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.