Chillicothe farm, flower shop benefit those with special needs
CHILLICOTHE — Jim and Laura Sniff never intended to own a flower shop. They never intended for their farm to become a concert venue.
Then again, when you have a child with autism, life can lead you down unanticipated paths.
A few weeks ago, the Sniffs purchased Picket Fence Floral, Gift and Garden Center in Chillicothe. They plan to use it as an employment source for those with special needs, like their 22-year-old son Jimmy.
For almost 20 years, the Sniffs have been playing host to field trips for such adults and children at their 245-acre farm northwest of Chillicothe. Beginning Sunday, Blue Ridge Community Farm is to be the site of a free concert series.
Performances that feature local and area musicians are scheduled for four Sundays through Oct. 3 in a natural amphitheater at the farm. Donations are to benefit the farm and flower shop.
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Laura Sniff gives an unseen maestro credit for it all.
“God really has orchestrated this entire mission,” she said earlier this week. “All of this wasn’t even on our radar two years ago. We weren’t even thinking we were going to buy a business.
“God just kind of put all these pieces in front of us and said, ‘How can you not do this?’”
Almost like Julie Andrews in ‘Sound of Music’
When he first saw the Sniffs’ farm, Jerry Kolb had kind of the same feeling regarding concerts.
A semi-retired former executive at WTVP-TV (47) in Peoria, Kolb became acquainted with the Sniffs through a friend whose son has Down syndrome. He had visited the Sniffs’ farm on a field trip.
Kolb visited, too — last year, after the Sniffs suggested their spread might make a good concert site. Upon further review, Kolb concurred. He compared the hillside location to Alpine Valley Music Theatre, a renowned venue southwest of Milwaukee.
“It’s almost like Julie Andrews in ‘The Sound of Music,’” Kolb said about the Blue Ridge view. “You walk up to the top of the hill and you look at this valley and say, ‘Holy crap, this is going to be good.’”
Kolb and the Sniffs conducted a test performance last autumn. That went well enough for them to promote a full-fledged concert series this year.
Scheduled performers include Delavan native Cody Diekhoff, known professionally as Chicago Farmer. Local musician Sarah Marie Dillard is to play host. The lineup is to feature acts on the mellow side, which befits the venue, according to Kolb.
“They’re not headbanger bands,” he said. “It’s meant to be a lovely little getaway in a unique setting.”
The working corn-and-soybean farm includes alpacas, donkeys and chickens. It was intended as a retirement place for Laura Sniff and her husband, who owns a real-estate investment business in Peoria.
But Blue Ridge, which is registered as a not-for-profit entity, also serves as a refuge for people with developmental disabilities.
About 1,500 adults and children visit the farm annually from May through October, according to Laura Sniff. They come from more than 50 area school districts and from Peoria organizations that assist those with special needs, including EPIC and Community Workshop and Training Center.
“The animals don’t know they have a disability,” Kolb said about the visitors. “They just see them as a person. These people with disabilities just have this rare opportunity to have what we could consider to be very normal interactions.”
Creating a special-needs campus in Chillicothe
A desire for the area special-needs community to have other normal interactions is part of what prompted the Sniffs to purchase Picket Fence.
The store has been registered as a not-for-profit enterprise. The Sniffs also are arranging for Blue Ridge to be able to receive donations on behalf of Picket Fence.
Laura Sniff said as her son became older, she became more aware job opportunities for young adults like him were limited. Picket Fence aims to provide jobs in its florist and greenhouse operations, as well as in its gift shop.
“There’s opportunity to interact with the public in a safe environment and learn skills at your own pace,” Sniff said.
“I’ve always felt like, ‘Why aren’t we teaching people with disabilities in high school and college to become entrepreneurs?’ So many families start businesses for children with disabilities because there’s no jobs here.”
Over the past 18 months or so, the Sniffs raised money to purchase the store. They also shadowed the previous owners to learn how the store operates.
The goal is for the developmentally disabled to someday constitute 60% to 70% of the Picket Fence workforce, Laura Sniff said. Right now, Picket Fence has two part-time employees who have special needs.
Eventually, the Sniffs envision the Picket Fence property along Illinois Route 29 as somewhere those with special needs will be able to work and reside, in adjacent apartments. Should that come to pass, it probably would be music to Laura Sniff’s ears.
“What we’re trying to build is a safe campus,” she said. “Raising a child with significant disabilities is daunting. But we are very passionate and definitely feel this is our calling.”
Blue Ridge Fall Concert Series
The Blue Ridge Community Farm Fall Concert Series is to begin Sunday at the farm, located at 21529 N. Blue Ridge Road, northwest of Chillicothe. Admission is free. Donations are accepted. Performances begin at 2 p.m. each day.
Performers are scheduled as follows.
Sunday: The Accidentals, Cami Proctor, Emily Antonacci, Megan Maroney
Sept. 19: The Deep Hollow, Stone & Snow
Sept. 26: Good Morning Bedlam, Harvest Sons, Projekts
Oct. 3: Chicago Farmer, Still Shine
The show Sunday might be moved to Exposition Gardens in Peoria, should weather become inclement. Check the Blue Ridge Community Farm Facebook page for updates.