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REILLY — The president of a Vermilion County-based nonprofit that serves special-needs individuals said board members and staff there are “just over the moon” with the gift of a 16-acre farm near Rankin that is likely to one day turn into a residential facility.
The Wheeler Foundation board voted to donate the property to WorkSource Enterprises of Danville.
President Todd Seabaugh said WorkSource works with developmentally disabled adults, assisting them with activities of daily living to increase their independence “to live in the community at the highest level possible.”
They are also taught skills for work and learning and have a small factory-like production area. The clients “learn to be on time, work with others, work with supervisors on how to hold down a job.”
The farm was formerly used as a residential facility by the Wheeler Foundation for developmentally disabled individuals.
Bob Swires, a Wheeler Foundation board member, said the facility, located in Reilly, about 3 miles southeast of Rankin, was operated from the late 1960s to 2000 as the Wheeler home farm and school.
Started by educators Charles and Maxine Wheeler, who had a heart for developmentally disabled individuals, the facility “was a home farm (and) school to a group of special-needs folks,” Swires said.
The Wheelers died about 20 years ago, but their estate indicated the individuals living at the residential farm could continue to reside there the rest of their lives.
“The Wheelers had five folks who were support staff who had meant a lot to them,” Swires said. “They left the original school and buildings to those five folks to live there. The Wheelers set up a trust fund to pay for that.”
They also set up a charitable foundation to aid special-needs individuals for a variety of projects.
“It was kind of unique,” Swires said. “It was a home. It was a school.
“They had classrooms and teachers. And it was a farm so people had chores with livestock to feed and clean up, gather eggs. Simple tasks they could do.”
At one time the farm had exotic animals, a train caboose, benches, statues and other novelties.
“When you’d drive by, standing at the fence would be a camel, a zebra, some miniature llamas, miniature ponies,” Swires said.
The animals were brought in to “make the students there feel unique, special,” Swires said.
“It was a source of pride to help them boost their self-esteem.”
The farm also had longhorn cattle, chickens and goats.
The school continued on the farm until Mrs. Wheeler’s death. Her estate left money to a foundation to support special-needs activities and set up a trust to care for the people living at the farm.
The last of the students left in 2002, but there were some support staff of the school who continued to live there until their deaths.
After the death of the last resident of the farm, the foundation board voted to seek a worthy recipient to operate it and selected WorkSource.
Seabaugh said one of the items on WorkSource’s wish list was to one day have a residential home.
“We tabled that since COVID to concentrate on our two programs here,” he said.
Recently, when Swires called to ask if WorkSource was interested in the facility, “I was just blown away,” Seabaugh said.
“It’s not every day you get a farm donated to you.”
WorkSource has already started taking clients to the farm on outdoor recreational outings. Pending state approval, the agency hopes to return it to a residential site that will house four to eight people.
One advantage is the house is already set up for people who use walkers and wheelchairs.
“The immediate plan is for outdoor recreation, including a large garden area, picnic area, area for rest and relaxation and indoor yoga and an outdoor yoga studio. We have different exercise options out there,” Seabaugh said.
There won’t be any exotic animals, but there will be some chickens, and the farm will be used for other activities, including how to do everyday tasks.
Seabaugh was already quite familiar with the rural Rankin area, having worked with developmentally disabled individuals at a Cissna Park-based group home in 1997.
WorkSource has a daily census of 100 consumers who come in weekdays.
The farm will serve as an alternative site for the workforce.
One of the WorkSource programs, Home-Based Services, is focused on helping people to become as independent as possible so they can live on their own.
The farm will be valuable toward that goal with access to a kitchen, washer and dryer — “all the basic upkeep and stuff we take for granted living independently,” Seabaugh said.
WorkSource serves all of Vermilion County and the Cissna Park area in Iroquois County.
Founded in 1972, WorkSource has 33 employees, some of whom have been hired through the Division of Rehabilitation.