Sean Burney wanted to be a farmer. That’s all. Just a farmer. Get up early, feed the pigs, muck the stalls, weed the garden, and all those other pleasantries that farmers do. After a lifetime of real estate investment, the hard work and long hours on the farm would be an easy trade-off for a life of fresh air, plants, and animals. So when his wife, JoAnn, suggested she go back to work and give Sean a shot at his passion, they sold their cookie-cutter house in Howell New Jersey and rented in Wall Township. She would teach Kindergarten. He would grow their food.
These were people who follow their hearts. And the Burney hearts were big and they were kind. They began to take in rescue animals. Then, one winter, after a major blizzard, the ASPCA found thirteen alpaca carcasses on a Jackson farm. The remaining animals needed a home. They called the Burney’s and their family suddenly grew by one alpaca, two sheep, two goats, and a donkey.
A short while later, Joann brought her kindergarten class over for a birthday party. Cole, six years old, was in that class. He was non-verbal and diagnosed with, among other things, apraxia. But something inside him unlocked in the company of the animals. Soon he was communicating with JoAnn. His Mom would bring him to the farm. It became his safe place. He worked alongside Sean. Then he was giving tours. He flourished and today, at eleven, he’s a social chatterbox. “He even talks in his sleep”, says his Mom.
One visitor, whose son, unable to cope with the anguish of his emotional issues killed himself, tearfully lamented that, “If he’d have had something like this, he might be alive today”. That broke open the barn doors for Sean and JoAnn. This could be no ordinary farm. Their mission was in plain sight. “Build it and they will come.” And build it, they did. After much bureaucratic red tape and recalcitrant neighbors, they purchased another twenty-five acres and formed a non-profit. They would construct a place where the mentally and mobility challenged might find a path to independence.
There would be an indoor riding arena where children could ride and care for a real horse even if it rained. A barn with ponies and a pavilion for birthday parties, class trips, and groups of at-risk kids. A petting zoo and raised beds where young wheelchair-bound gardeners could grow their own vegetables and even sell their produce at the farm’s country store.
Build it and they will come. But there is no magic wand. Only magicians and angels. Don Corson, developer, farmer, and former Mayor of Wall Township NJ threw his hat in the ring. He helped them get financing, patrons, contractors. It now became his mission as well. Harms Construction brought over earth-moving machines, Lertch Demolition land-clearing expertise and labor. Peter Avakian did the engineering. John Schibel paid for the pony barn, The Spring Lake Five bought the Children’s Agriculture Museum. Boy scouts volunteer to earn merit badges, honor students to build up their resumes. Whole Foods donates organic fruits and vegetables every Sunday to supplement the farm produce. It takes a village and the village answered.
Anxiety, depression, autism, Down’s Syndrome, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis. These are the horrific circumstances families bring with them. Helmets and wheelchairs and crutches. Parents and teachers and caregivers with unconditional love and saintly patience. No one can visit here and walk away the same. To witness the momentary joy these kids experience is overwhelming. Fight back that lump in your throat; try to calm the pounding of your heart.
Children line up and board a hay wagon that Don Corson built. It’s being pulled by an old farm tractor Don donated. They can’t climb up themselves and so their parents guide them, hold them, carry them. Missing are the smiles. This is new; it’s unknown; it’s scary. It’s the apprehension of the first day in a new school or a new job. The nervous anxiety of not knowing what to expect. The old wagon rumbles and creaks as it makes its way around the fields. It reappears ten minutes later, its cargo full of happy faces. They’ll be talking about this “adventure” when they get home. The Kingda-Ka roller coaster at Great Adventure could not have been more thrilling.
Build it and they will come. Fourth graders will come from Asbury and Neptune City and Colts Neck to experience gardening. In a program aptly named Suburban Urban School Healthy Initiative (SUSHI), pioneered by Freeholder Tom Arnone, they’ll plant seeds in a greenhouse and nurture them through to harvest and market. Radishes are always the first crop: they germinate, grow, and ripen quickly. The strong pungent taste brings out all manner of faces and laughter. And then the pay-off: kids from these extremely diverse backgrounds find something in common. They’ll plant and raise other crops together for the rest of the year. We hear so much about how divided this country is. We need more radishes!
Build it and they will come. They’ll come from ARC (Association of Retarded Citizens). Many will have Down’s Syndrome. Their affinity with the animals obliterates the stigma of the now-despised word, “retarded”. Like the animals they pet, “they have a sixth sense” explains JoAnn. “They pick up vibes. One boy, Tommy, said ‘You look like you need a hug. It was like he looked into my soul.”
They built it and David came. David, a young man diagnosed with galactosemia, a severe strain of lactose intolerance that can lead to seizures and has marginalized his mobility. Three days a week he cares for the citizens of the petting zoo; feeding, watering, and conducting tours. He smiles and says, “It makes me happy. There’s no place else I’d rather be”.
Sean built it and they came. He builds and he builds and he builds. Up at six to feed the horses before setting posts for the new greenhouse. Organizing the volunteers before winterizing the equipment and meeting with engineers. Pushing manure and filling in trenches before schooling the SUSHI kids. Darkness brings time for bookkeeping. A busy day for a guy who just wanted to be a farmer.
This post originally published Nov 14, 2018 in the Asbury Park Press