When Bellamarie Bregar, a retired State College Area School District special education instructor, saw that many of her former students on the autism spectrum lacked employment and social opportunities once they reached their early 20s, she decided to do something about it. ACRES Project evolved as a result.
ACRES is headquartered on a rural property on Bernel Road in Patton Township. The newly renovated 3,800-square-foot space sits on two acres. The goal, Bregar said, was to create “an oasis for (adults on the autism spectrum), a place where they could come share ... have a good time and just be themselves.”
But the teacher in Bregar also wanted education to be a component.
While ACRES provides day programs, job support, social groups, book clubs and more, it’s Acres of Joy, the entrepreneurial leg of the organization, that’s extending into the community via local farmers markets. The group creates its own all-natural, vegan and cruelty-free soaps, which you can find at the Pine Grove Mills Farmers Market, and its next big goal is to get an on-site greenhouse and aquaponics system up and running. It’s purpose would be two-fold: Supply the community with sustainable produce while providing entrepreneurial opportunities for adults benefiting from ACRES’ services.
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Aquaponics lends itself to everyone on the autism spectrum and serves a wide variety of adult needs, Bregar said.
“You have setting up the plants, putting a little seed in a pot and watching it grow, cultivating (the plants) by pulling the raft out of the water and cutting the roots and then packaging (the produce), but you also have a more technical side of it where you have to measure the pH, you have to measure the nitrates, you have to make sure you have the right sunlight and the right temperature and that the fish are being fed correctly,” she said.
The aquaponics system will be able to provide items like microgreens to consumers at a rapid pace, going from seed to table in 45 days. In comparison to conventional agriculture, aquaponics uses 90 percent less water while producing 5 to 20 times more food per acres, without any pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers, according to the ACRES website.
The organization is still working toward raising necessary funds for the project, but Bregar is optimistic.
“We’re still moving forward, we’re still raising money and we’re still planning on doing it, because we’ve seen, even with the soap business, when people (come) together and start working, so many other pieces of their lives fit together,” she said. “It builds their self-esteem, their confidence, their sense of purpose...”
Currently, about 35 individuals benefit from ACRES Project programming and services, but Bregar said that the benefits go far beyond just those 35 people.
“That one person affects their family, which can be four or five (people,) which then affects their grandparents, which could be seven more, which affects their aunts, uncles and cousins,” she said. “By helping one person with autism, you’re helping a whole family.”
Beyond the current goal of the greenhouse and aquaponics system, Bregar and her team also hope to one day start a Community Supported Agriculture program, as well as extend their services to other communities and possibly build several more greenhouses, where “individuals can come, learn leadership skills and work together as a team,” Bregar said.
ACRES’ fundraising goal to get the aquaponics system completely operational and the greenhouse built is $30,000. Individual donations support this goal, as do all funds raised from soap purchases. Until the aquaponics system is operational, the group is producing microgreens on a smaller scale; Bregar says the produce will be available at farmers markets this summer.
Those interested in volunteering with ACRES or learning more, can visit acresproject.org.