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Elsie's Barnyard: Western Wisconsin farm opens to children living with special needs

Mandy Fleming wanted a place where children with adverse medical conditions could escape. She named it Elsie's Barnyard.

ELLSWORTH, Wisconsin — Mandy Fleming will tell you that only a select group of people truly understands what her family's life is like.

"The amount of time we spend at appointments, and therapy, and on the phone with insurance - it is isolating," she said.

The youngest of the Flemings four children, 2-year-old Elsie, was born with Down syndrome. Mandy says by Elsie's second birthday, the toddler had gone through more than 300 hours of therapy.

"That's a lot for anybody," she said. 

But Mandy saw how much Elsie benefited from the animals on the family's farm in Ellsworth, Wisconsin. She says she noticed her daughter's motor skills, speech, and language improved by interacting with the animals. So Mandy decided other children living with adverse medical conditions should have access to that benefit, too. 

"When I looked around and acknowledged what we had to share with others, you know, this was it," Mandy said, motioning to the family's farm.

The Flemings opened up their farm to other families, calling it Elsie's Barnyard. They launched a 10-week pilot program this summer, open to 10 families who come to the farm once a week. The children can play in a special fenced area of the farm, interacting with goats, miniature horses, kittens, chickens, and more.

"I wanted a place where kiddos could come and there aren't expectations put on them, and someone is not measuring the outcomes... they're just able to come be themselves," she said.

Credit: KARE
The Grotholson family, from Ellsworth, Wisconsin, visits Elsie's Barnyard.

The Grotholson family is one of the first 10 to take part. Their 20-month-old daughter, Kinsley, also has Down syndrome.

"It's comforting to relate with other people on that level," said Jared Grotholson, Kinsley's father. "Instead of a sympathetic level, it's more empathetic, where they really understand where you're coming from."

The program's missions is to "restore and strengthen the hearts, minds, and souls of children and families facing adverse medical conditions through interacting with animals and nature."

The families do not pay for the experience. Elsie's Barnyard is helped by donations and volunteers.

You can find more information about Elsie's Barnyard, here.

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