New ranch will offer vocational skills to those with learning disabilities

FREEPORT, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - According to the Autism Spectrum on the Emerald Coast, 50 new families face an autism diagnosis of one their children every day, and many of the local families affected say Walton and Okaloosa counties are lacking alternative secondary education for those on the spectrum, but a new ranch will soon give them possibilities they never had before.

Moving to Freeport, Florida from Alabama, the Wood family was searching for an alternative learning environment for their autistic son. That's when the idea for the Westonwood Ranch began to form and now, almost two years later, their dream is becoming a reality.

"I never envisioned this is what would come out of all this. You know, when Weston was diagnosed, I was shattered and it just like rocked me to the core," founder of the Westonwood Ranch, Lindy Wood said.

Wood's son Weston was diagnosed with severe non-verbal autism at the age of two.

"We really started digging deeper in our local community in Walton County, Okaloosa County and started looking at programs that target younger individuals with developmental disorders and we found, shockingly, that it's severely lacking," Wood said.

That's when Wood and her husband reached out to the Emerald Coast Autism Center and began collaborating.

"We saw this coming on the horizon because our kids are only getting older and so we started to realize we needed to do something. The kids here will age out of the educational system at age 22 and then there is not a lot of options for them in the community," CEO of ECAC, Heidi Blalock said.

Partnering with the ECAC, they hope to offer transitional education for their students.

From animal husbandry and aquaponic farming to product development and computer technology, the curriculum is designed to develop their skills, but also to self-sustain the ranch.

"The tasks that we're looking at out on the ranch are repetitive in nature. They are skills that our kids can easily acquire and our goal is for them to learn them on the ranch and then hopefully move up and out into a community partner role where they can maintain their own job on their own," Blalock explained.

"So really, it is a holistic program and we really want to change the face of our community and how we view and treat individuals with unique abilities and special needs," Wood added.

When the doors open, the ranch will accommodate 140 full-time participants.

Although they plan to open soon, they're still searching for some more funding, which they hope to do through some community events, including an upcoming rodeo.