...to enrich the lives of families with special needs children
through customized therapeutic experiences
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When a goal is so far-reaching, so perfect in its vision that it’s nearly implausible, we call it a dream. We place it on a high shelf where we can gaze upon its beauty and say, “Wouldn’t it be nice if…”
But Louie Castriota Jr., is no dreamer. He’s a goal –oriented guy, the type who schedules meetings at 6am and sleeps just a few hours a night. Castriota had a dream – a big, far-reaching, implausible one. But he never put it on a shelf. He carried that dream with him every single day for 13 years. He carried it until it had four walls big enough to hold other people’s dreams, and a working staff ready to meet other people’s goals.
And he called it Leg Up Farm.
“It’s really, really fulfilling for me after 13 years of work to now have children in the facility,” Castriota says of Leg Up Farm, a nonprofit therapy center in York County for children with disabilities and developmental delays. The project’s first phase, a 16,400-square-foot facility for therapeutic and educational services, opened in early April. It was the result of Castriota’s perseverance, his community’s support and his daughter’s inspiration.
Brooke Castriota, 14, was 1 when she was diagnosed with mitochondrial disease, a metabolic disorder that causes both cognitive and motor function delays. The diagnosis moved her parents, who had just begun dreaming about opening a therapeutic riding center for children with disabilities, to significantly widen the scope of their vision.
“Your initial emotions after a diagnosis like that are of fear and sadness, and it’s hard. At that moment you realize the normal things that you were looking forward to may never happen,” says Castriota, who has three other children with his wife, Laurie. “My way of dealing with that fear and sadness was to try to find a way to help her and other children.”
The vision was to bring therapists of all different specialties under one roof to work together with family and community members, teachers, volunteers and physicians to give each child the most comprehensive care possible – and to do it all in an environment that’s both comfortable and stimulating for children.
“You create this child-friendly environment by dropping this medical facility into a farm,” Castriota says. “By doing that, you create an environment that really motivates children to succeed in their therapy goals. And it allows the therapist to have access to all these wonderful attributes of the environment to use in the therapy program.”
Occupational therapist Margaret Myers serves as therapy director at Leg Up Farm. Her young clients’ response to their first therapy sessions there were all the feedback she needed about the new space.
“A lot of the kids we see typically have a difficult time transitioning to a new environment,” Myers says. “But not one of the kids I’ve seen had a difficult time transitioning. And that speaks volumes.”
That new environment is a state-of-the-art building on 18 acres of donated land in York County. The center serves people from birth to age 21 who are facing all kinds of developmental delays and disabilities for a variety of reasons, including autism, ADHD< cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, metabolic disorders, traumatic brain injuries and delays in speech and motor skills. Families may be referred by a primary care physician who diagnoses a particular problem, or they can seek an on-site assessment to address their own concerns. Leg Up Farm accepts insurance, including Medicare and Medicaid, and works with families to make sure nobody is turned away.
“We assess their cognitive, emotional, social and motor needs, and put together a plan for the child that…is not necessarily based on a diagnosis,” Myers explains. “We simply look at the child and see how we can help them become the best person that they can b.”
York resident Karen Klidonas is thankful for that approach. Her son Athan, 5, doesn’t have a formal diagnosis of any particular disorder, but needs occupational therapy for some sensory issues. Klidonas is happy that Leg Up Farm doesn’t get mired in labels or serve only those on the end of the developmental spectrum. Athan has been working with Myers, and they met at Leg Up Farm for the first time in early April. “So far we’ve been thrilled,” Klidonas says of the new facility. “I think Lou’s vision was to have a place for parents to call home as well, and that certainly is what it is.”
Krista Cunningham of York is one parent who already is calling Leg Up Farm home. Cunningham’s daughter Leah, 5, has Down syndrome, and the family has had her in various therapies since she was an infant. Knowing such a kid-friendly therapy center was coming to their hometown was almost more than they could hope for, Cunningham says.
“We all had gone to fundraisers and had supported Lou in his efforts over the years. It was something we knew was a possibility, but we didn’t want to get our hopes up,” she says. “We all sort of regard Lou as our hero. And seeing the dream come true gives us so much hope, so much more to look forward to because there’s so much more to help your kids grow.”
And there’s much more on the way, too. Construction of the second phase of the project, an equine center for riding therapy, is scheduled for an August completion, thanks to a $1 million state redevelopment grant. The third and final construction phase would include an interactive community center featuring a greenhouse, therapy pool and auditorium and an outdoor garden for fresh-air play and sensory therapy.
Eventually there will be music therapy, art therapy, and a host of other programs to help kids of all different abilities reach their full potential. It’s just what Castriota envisioned Leg Up Farm to be. A place where other people’s dreams come true and other people’s goals are realized.
“The first time we went, I took pictures with my phone,” Cunningham says, “and e-mailed them to everyone we know, all the people who have dreamed with us, to say “We’re here! It’s open. The dream came true.”
Robyn Passante, freelance writer and mother of two from Carlisle