Somewhere out there, Bella Bregar hopes, a winning lottery ticket waits for her.
But if not, maybe another piece of paper will be the answer to her dreams. Perhaps it’s a golden check, a different ticket to happiness.
Either one would be a godsend.
Both would be better.
There’s a farm in Oak Hall, Benjamin Plum Farm, 70 tranquil acres along Spring Creek. Bregar wants it, but not for herself.
She looks at the 1868 farmhouse, the barn and riding ring, the hillside field, and sees a community.
Bregar, of Linden Hall, is a retired autistic support teacher. For 37 years, in the Tyrone and State College school districts, she helped nurture special needs children.
Now, she’s eager to do the same for adults.
She and her husband, Mark, joined by friends, formed a nonprofit, Benjamin Plum Farm, this summer. They aspire to buy the farm, maintain it through their group and create a bucolic enclave for people with autism and intellectual disabilities.
Their plans embrace an alluring future: crops, a community supported agriculture program, horses, livestock, animal therapy programs, vocational training, walking trails, dances in the barn, dinners in the house and, eventually, residences around the property.
They imagine a safe place, a “Cheers”-like place, where people all along the autistic spectrum can feel at ease, where they can meet others, pursue interests or just enjoy the solitude of a timeout from the world.
Where they can just be themselves.
“That’s the kind of environment that I envision,” said Bella Bregar, the co-executive director along with her husband. “I just want to be able to help with whatever they need. There’s nothing like that in State College.”
But before that day comes, the Benjamin Plum Farm organization faces a steeper slope than the one that rises behind the barn to U.S. Route 322.
The group, which has first dibs on the farm, must raise $400,000 by Sept. 20 for a down payment, leaving a small window to make the deadline. Otherwise the seller, who’s asking about $1 million total, will list the property again.
Fundraising only began earlier this month.
“Backs against the wall,” Mark Bregar said.
His wife keeps faith. This is her ideal farm, the one she loved at first sight, the flame that kindled a torch smoldering for a long time.
The spark jumped this summer.
Bregar volunteers as a Special Olympics manager. In June, at the state Special Olympics games at Penn State, she and Lisa Bowen, a friend with an autistic son, decided to go for it. They would search in earnest for a property suitable for a residential community for autistic adults.
Weeks later, as luck would have it, one of Bregar’s neighbors asked about the hunt. Good news came next: The Benjamin Plum Farm was for sale.
Bregar and Bowen, now their group’s board president, checked it out and were instantly smitten.
“You walked on that property and you can just envision everybody there having a great time,” Bregar said.
Soon after, they formed the Benjamin Plum Farm organization — the first step toward raising the necessary sum to secure the farm.
While the group’s paperwork waits for approval to become an official nonprofit, it’s planning a benefit tailgate party at the Sept. 6 Penn State football game against Akron. Another fundraiser is in the works for Sept. 11 at the Happy Valley Vineyard and Winery.
All the while, Bregar remembers a boy from her childhood in western New York.
David Clark was intellectually challenged. Classmates teased him, blamed him for mishaps in elementary school. He needed a friend.
Bregar decided to be one.
His father worked for her father, a bricklayer. David often visited her home, and they would play.
He died early, drowning in a lake from a convulsion, but the memory of him lives on with Bregar. Their time together inspired her to earn a special education degree at Penn State and devote herself to autistic and special needs children.
“They’ve always had a special place in my heart,” she said.
That doesn’t change when they become adults. Unfortunately for them, though, a lot else does.
No longer do they have the same resources and counseling as in school. Social opportunities, even for high-functioning autistic people, can be limited. Meeting people can be hard. Lives can become isolated.
“What do you do when you’re 35 years old and autistic, or have intellectual disabilities?” Bregar said. “Where do you go? What kind of fun do you have?”
She thinks of a local autistic woman in her 20s, returning from her part-time job to her apartment.
“Where does she go at night?” Bregar said. “Unless her parents or aunts and uncles take her out or something like that, she doesn’t have a place to go. And so she sits and watches TV or plays on her computer.”
If fortune smiles on Bregar, she could offer an alternative — an environment as welcoming as her childhood house was for a troubled boy.
At Benjamin Plum Farm, people could drop by before or after work to garden. They could make dinners together, ride horses or take quiet walks in the woods. Some could raise animals. Others could benefit from animal-assisted therapy.
Sometimes, the farm might be simply a place to talk, to work out problems, to relax amidst the kind of warmth Bregar grew up with from an extended Italian family.
“People would come there and feel like they belong,” she said.
It’s all there, the whole dream, at www.benjaminplumfarm.org.
All that’s standing in the way is money.
And so, Bregar plays the lottery. She seeks donations, maybe a benefactor who could front most of the down payment. She can’t apply for most grants unless she owns the property, a vexing Catch-22. Each passing day, the clock ticks more loudly.
She holds out hope. Somehow, it’ll work out and she’ll have a leafier version of her old classroom: a haven, come as you are.
“I always felt that you never change who people are,” she said. “You help them develop their strengths. You help them develop their passions.
“But I never wanted to change anybody. That’s who you are. To me, that’s beautiful.”