MARYSVILLE — Ernie Mapanoo ran to the garden soon after the van pulled up to the farm. He leaned to the ground and plucked some carrots, covered in dirt and frozen from winter, then rushed over to a wire fence.
He offered the treat to a horse named Sky on that sunny afternoon in January. Mapanoo had been scared to go near the animal before, but he’s been getting used to the visits for the last couple of months.
Mapanoo, 22, is a student at the Marysville-Tulalip Integrated Learning Center that opened in September. The school, run by a nonprofit, was made for adults with developmental disabilities who have graduated from the Marysville School District.
The new center was set up by parents, some of whom have quit their jobs and used their own money to get it started. Students take trips to places like the gym and the farm, where they learn work skills and how to be healthy. The school is running out of money and could be in danger of closing after this year.
For now, students can enroll only if they have graduated from Marysville schools and have received a recommendation from special education teacher Jim Strickland.
The learning center roster includes about a dozen full- and part-time students between 21 and 26 years old. The school follows the district calendar, though it’s not part of the public system. Tuition is free.
About a year ago, Eric Holmes quit his job in biopharmaceutical research to focus his attention on getting other parents on board, setting up meetings and working on finances. He’s now the teacher there from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. every weekday.
“If I was still doing my other job, and this on the side, I wouldn’t be so dedicated,” he said.
His oldest son, Jaikob “Jai” Holmes, was in the special education transition program for 18- to 21-year-olds at Marysville Pilchuck High School. The family hadn’t been able to find any options that would fit their needs after he graduated last June.
“For this population, there was not really anything in existence, and especially not in the immediate area,” Holmes said. “There was nothing that didn’t cost an arm and a leg.”
Holmes and other parents brought their ideas to Marysville’s Committee for Creating and Sustaining Opportunities for People with Disabilities. It’s made up of city leaders, including Mayor Jon Nehring.
There the group met Kinder Smoots, executive director of Eagle Wings disAbility Ministries in Marysville. Soon after, the faith-based organization became a sponsor. Eagle Wings hosts monthly events throughout Snohomish County to bring adults with cognitive disabilities together.
“Students who have graduated were staying at home and basically their whole life was wiped out,” Smoots said. “They were even more marginalized and isolated from their routines and friends. If they didn’t have employment or a job coach, they were just sitting at home.”
Most adults with developmental disabilities don’t have a job to go to during the day. One national study from 2017 by The Arc says that 36 percent are employed. Another survey by the National Core Indicators found that number to be about 20 percent.
Holmes and Smoots now are focused on making it through the year. They need about $20,000.
“We have funds to finish our lease and we have funds to pay the teacher for a couple more months,” Smoots said.
Smoots also has applied for a grant to receive a $15,000 van. The school doesn’t have its own vehicle, so Holmes has been using his family van.
Holmes and his wife, Monica Holmes, were married more than two decades ago. About five years later they began to take care of foster children, and were quickly matched with Jai, now 21.
“We always planned on adopting, whether we were able to have biological children or not,” Holmes said.
Jai had been abandoned at the hospital soon after he was born. He’s been diagnosed with multiple conditions, including fragile X syndrome. It’s caused by a gene mutation and can affect brain development.
The couple later adopted another son named Tristan, now 14, and then decided they wanted a daughter. But it didn’t work out that way.
“We ended up with four boys instead,” Holmes said.
They met brothers Josh, now 11, and Isaiah, now 10, and realized the boys were meant to be part of the family.
Each of their children has special needs.
“All four times I don’t think we went in expecting it,” Holmes said.“It was never the direct plan, but it was never something that held us back.”
The family lives on the Tulalip Indian Reservation and the boys have always gone to Marysville schools.
The parents who started the new learning center had students, a teacher and people who were willing to donate, but needed to become a nonprofit to accept the money.
Smoots had already built a network during the past 15 years, and could help the parents find resources. She asked the Eagle Wings board of directors to consider the program. She thought it tied in with their mission to create connections between adults with disabilities.
“That is what these students were lacking by sitting at home, is relationships,” Smoots said.
The board agreed to take on the project. Smoots rented a building owned by the Damascus Road Church on State Avenue.
The space has a few open rooms for classes, an office for Holmes and a coffee bar. There’s also a professional kitchen where students learn to follow recipes such as grilled cheese and tomato soup. Several parents called Smoots after that lesson saying they had eaten the meal every night for a week.
Holmes hopes to get each of the students a food handler’s permit. Eventually he would like them to open and work in the espresso stand to raise money for the school.
Holmes is taking online classes to become a certificated special education teacher. Everyone else is a volunteer or employed by the hour.
People don’t have to be professional teachers to work with the students, Smoots said. They need help learning skills like math, such as adding up how much money they’ll spend at the grocery store.
Smoots would also like to see college students majoring in education gain experience through the school. Volunteers can help out for as much time as they have.
“The key is consistency,” Smoots said. “It’s hard for them to get to know and meet somebody new. Having the same repetition, the same schedule, the same people is highly important.”
Good days and bad days
Most lessons happen outside the classroom.
On the first day of class, Scott Ballenger visited the students and invited them to the Marysville YMCA once a week.
Ballenger has been a trainer there for about 20 years. He works with people who have physical and cognitive disabilities. Ballenger had an accident as a teenager that left him with a spinal cord injury. He uses a wheelchair.
During that first meeting Ballenger brought Ginger Baker, who he’s worked with for more than a decade. Baker, 42, was born with cerebral palsy.
“They can aspire to do what Ginger’s doing,” Ballenger said. “She’s very connected to the community.”
Ballenger wanted to tell the students about Baker’s busy schedule. She lives in Marysville and meets her job coach every morning in Smokey Point. Depending on the day, she could be working at a hospital, helping out at the food bank or watching children through a group called Mothers of Preschoolers.
“This is my twelfth year working with 2- and 3-year-olds,” she said.
Baker’s exercises help her to stay on her feet longer, Ballenger said. She has a hard time keeping her balance, but it has gotten better through the years.
“It just comes and goes,” Baker said. “Sometimes I have good days, sometimes I have bad days.”
Ballenger has noticed improvements in the students, and is helping some of them with their eating habits. One student would come to the gym each day with a bottle of Mountain Dew.
“The first thing I do when I see him is take him to the water fountain and convince him to dump the Mountain Dew and fill it up with water,” Ballenger said.
On the farm
Another day of the week the school visits Kim Adcock’s 5-acre farm, east of Highway 9 near the Getchell fire station.
Adcock in the past has used her horses to help people. She was injured about four years ago and hasn’t been able to do that work since. She began searching for something else.
“I started praying about it and was led to Kinder at Eagle Wings, and started to volunteer there a little bit,” she said.
The plan is for students to use skills they learn at the farm to work at a shelter or around pets. Adcock has dogs, goats, chickens and ducks. She also has the big horse named Sky and a mini one named Cooper.
Mapanoo fed the carrots to Sky during a visit a couple of weeks ago. Once he was finished, Holmes’ son Josh spent time with the horse. Josh is in middle school and can’t enroll at the learning center yet, but goes to the farm every once in a while.
“The horses really help him with therapy,” Holmes said. “Sometimes more than the actual therapists we pay for.”
That day, Josh picked up an apple that had fallen from its tree. The sun shined on his ears and neck as he held the fruit in his hand and smiled, laughing as the horse ate from his palm.
Just behind him the others were working on the garden as the horse started to neigh. The Cascade Range peeked through the trees with a backdrop of the clear, blue sky.
The students rolled carts of hay to the compost pile they’ve been working on. They plan to use it in the spring to grow vegetables to sell at the farmers market in Marysville.
Student Tyler Thornton, 22, quietly sat on a wooden bench with a glum expression, listening to music on his headphones when the group arrived.
Adcock asked if he’d like to walk the small horse around on a leash. Thornton’s face had brightened by the time he was finished, and he joined his friends again.
Some students noticed that the little horse had gained weight since the last time they were there. “He’s getting fatter!” Mapanoo exclaimed.
The students each wore rubber boots to protect their shoes from the mud and manure. When they learned what it was, some yelled, “Ew!”
The experiences at Adcock’s farm have made some of them more comfortable around animals. During the group’s first trip there, Mapanoo decided to stay in the van because he was nervous. He’s not afraid anymore.
“Can we let the horses out?” He asked during the visit.
‘People loving people’
Holmes hopes to someday open the center to more people and move to a larger campus with on-site housing, like a college.
“That would be the grand dream,” he said.
He also wants the resources open to everyone who graduates from the Marysville transition program. For now, they are not able to bring in those who could easily get sick or who are nonverbal.
Smoots’ favorite part has been watching the students make differences in the lives of others who don’t usually interact with adults who have disabilities. She’s watched people embrace who used to be strangers.
“It’s just people loving people,” she said. “Isn’t that what we want for everybody?”
Ways to help
Contact Eric Holmes for information about how to support the school at email@example.com or 360-913-1645.
Donations can be made at any Coastal Community Bank. Each gift should clearly be designated for the Marysville-Tulalip Integrated Learning Center. Finances between Eagle Wings disAbility Ministries and the learning center are kept separate, director Kinder Smoots said. Donations also are accepted for Eagle Wings.