Editor’s note: This month’s Business Beacon is a spotlight on Westonwood Ranch, a behavioral therapy program that serves children with developmental disabilities. It is owned and operated by Lindy Wood. Do you have a business you think we should feature? Leave a comment below!
1. How did you get the idea or concept for your business?
Lindy: I am a mother to a 10-year-old little boy who happens to have unique needs. Weston was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2. Weston has the “kind” of autism that isn’t always represented in the feel-good media. He is considered non-verbal, often has self-injurious behaviors, and has difficulties managing social situations. He struggles with sensory integration. From the sunlight to sounds to the simplest change in his daily routine, the world we live in day-to-day poses a constant challenge.
It is hard to put into words how parenting a child with special needs completely rearranges your life. The initial pain that was associated with hearing the words “autism,” broke me to the core. As a mom, you grieve a life that you envisioned for your child … playdates, little league baseball, friendships, college … and then you feel like all those experiences are snatched away from you and then you mourn the loss of that pre-conceived notion. Digging out of this dark place was hard. The more I surrounded myself with other families affected by autism I stopped focusing so much on our own struggles. I became particularly interested in what the future holds for children with autism especially as they age out of the school system. Just as with all four of my children, I wanted Weston to have opportunities to develop his independence and to find his place in this world. Neurotypical or not, I believe we all have that inherent desire to contribute to society in some way. It was obvious to me that there was a dearth of service options as these teens age into adulthood. The lack of transitional services is not just a local problem, it is a national problem.
It is ironic that I was a practicing psychiatric Nurse Practitioner prior to Weston’s birth. The majority of my life I have been involved in caring for those with disabilities. It was a smooth transition for me to put the program model together for Westonwood Ranch; it became my life’s mission and Weston was the heartbeat behind the project.
2. Let’s discuss numbers: What year did you open? How many locations do you have? How many people do you employ?
Lindy: Westonwood Ranch received its nonprofit status in April 2017 and with 11 acres of vacant land and a vision, we launched a silent capital campaign. There are so many donors in our community who gave their time and finances that put the project on a fast track. Thanks to early partnerships with Destin Charity Wine Foundation, The St. Joe Community Foundation and the La Lumière Foundation, our organization built credibility in the community, spurring others to get involved. By August 2019, we opened the doors to a farm-based campus with a educational center, therapeutic equine facility and a commercial aquaponics teaching greenhouse for individuals with varying developmental differences.
3. What do you sell or what service do you provide? What’s your best seller?
Lindy: Let me tell you about our lettuce. Our nonprofit model has social enterprises that help push us to sustainability while providing hands-on learning and job skills training. We have a commercial aquaponic greenhouse where we raise channel catfish and grow a variety of organic lettuces in a closed-loop ecosystem. Who doesn’t love locally-grown products? Our lettuce is beautiful and it is grown with love. Through the purchase of our lettuce, you will be helping support our many programs including equine-assisted therapy, life skills training, transition to work, employment supports, as well as summer day camps. The mission of or organization is to bridge the gap in traditional services/educational models and launch these young individuals into a life of productivity and independence.
4. What’s unique about what you do or offer?
Lindy: There are many behavioral therapy programs that serve children with developmental disabilities. As these children age, insurance coverage for therapies is often denied and there is a service cliff. These children go from getting consistent services to falling off the cliff with very little transition to programs that help the student gain the skills necessary to live independently. New evidenced-based literature suggests that life skills and job skills training in this population should BEGIN at age 13, not 21. Westonwood Ranch takes a visionary approach to recognize the talents and different abilities and to channel this into a productive skillset that can help secure employment through their lifespan.
5. How would you describe your business to a potential customer?
Lindy: You can not describe Westonwood Ranch in words. It is something that is best felt with your heart. If you haven’t visited us, you definitely should. It is a community built on positivity and a learning environment that is surrounded by the non-judgemental acceptance of our farm animals who understand how to communicate love and acceptance without words. We have a pretty incredible staff who are passionate about this mission and are here for a reason … not just a paycheck. (I can say this jokingly because we all know that high wages are not often associated with nonprofit work.)
6. What do you love most about your line of work?
Lindy: I do not view what I do as work but rather my life’s purpose. As the founder and president of Westonwood Ranch, my work for the organization is 100% an unpaid volunteer role. The organization is always in the forefront of my mind and I am energized by this mission; it is also a form of healing for me. I can channel energy from my own personal and professional experience with autism as well as the hardships of parenting a special needs child into this mission. Individuals affected by autism have such vast abilities and their lives represent opportunities and promise. I feel so lucky to see these abilities unfold.
7. What sorts of trends are you seeing in your industry?
Lindy: I am not really speaking to trends in the nonprofit sector but specifically about trends in autism. In 2020, the CDC reported that approximately 1 in 54 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Think about that number then fast-forward to adulthood where 90% of adults with autism are chronically unemployed. Autism is a looming crisis and people often forget that this is a LIFELONG disorder.
8. Tell me in just a sentence or two what you feel sets you apart from your competitors.
Lindy: We really don’t think about there being competitors in the nonprofit sector. Westonwood Ranch is such a unique program. It is a place where every individual can shine, despite their differences. You feel it as soon as you step on campus. One smile can reach the depths of your soul and you feel the life-changing work that we are doing.
9. Who or what inspires you? This could be a family member or celebrity, a particular quote or even a book/movie/podcast. This sky’s the limit!
Lindy: My son Weston has taught me more about the meaning of life in the past 10 years than I could EVER teach him. He has given me the priceless gift of perspective and I can never repay him for that. His disability has challenged our family in ways that I thought would undo me but instead, it has made me a stronger person. He will always be my hero.
10. What’s the best thing about being a part of the Emerald Coast, personally and/or professionally?
Lindy: Moving from a very rural area in west Alabama, I never expected the Emerald Coast to be the tight-knit community that it is. I love the “small town” feel and from a nonprofit perspective, this community is so very giving. We have experienced this generosity firsthand and are so thankful for our donors who continue to support year after year. My favorite thing about being a part of the Emerald Coast is that I absolutely love that I can live on a farm and literally be on the beach in 20 minutes.
11. Are you/your business involved in the community in any way? Volunteering or giving back? If so, how?
Lindy: A different spin on this question: Westonwood Ranch was so honored to be included in Scenic Sotheby’s International Realty’s Christmas Party Give Back. Thanks to the generosity of so many agents and the leadership team, we were presented a check for $15,000. In a year with so many canceled fundraising events and economic uncertainty, this gift helped us reach year-end fundraising goals. If you are looking for ways to get involved please reach out. We are always in need of volunteers that can commit to one afternoon a week from 2:30 to 5 p.m. to help in our equine therapy program. We also have opportunities to volunteer in our teaching kitchen or greenhouse and we are always in need of extra help with events. I think it is important to use the skills and talents of each individual wisely … so let us know what your strength is and how you might like to help and we will get you plugged in.
12. What does a typical day in your business look like? (Pretend it’s Monday (or Friday!) and take me through the highlights of your day.)
Lindy: All of our program participants take turns feeding the horses, pigs, goats, alpacas, kittens, bunny and fish in the morning around 9 a.m. There are a lot of skills learned during this time: Following a schedule, measuring, teamwork. We incorporate holistic activities such as music and art. There are activities going on in the kitchen. Seeding activities and watering plants are taking place in the greenhouse. Participants work in small groups of three, learning specific life skills. There is so much energy throughout the ranch. Each day is just as unique as each individual we serve.
13. How do you recharge or relax when the day is done?
Lindy: It is hard to relax with four children but when I have a chance, I absolutely love playing tennis. When we moved to Florida in 2016, I was looking for a therapeutic outlet and signed up for a Tennis 101 clinic. There was something empowering and stress-relieving about swinging a racquet. It is a great form of exercise intertwined with a healthy bit of competition. When I play tennis, this is literally the only time my brain goes on pause. I also look forward to recharging and refueling my tank at church with my family on Sundays. We always eat Sunday brunch at Weston’s favorite restaurant, AJ’s Grayton Beach!
14. Just the deets, please! Where are you located? Business hours? Social media profiles and/or website links we need to know about? (Please feel free to add social media handles or direct links!)
Lindy: Westonwood Ranch is located at 4390 Hwy 20 West in Freeport, Florida. Hours of operation are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and we ask that if you are interested in touring our campus that you contact us by email firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone 850.880.2220 for an appointment. Please take a minute to like and follow us on Facebook and Instagram. For more information about our programs, please visit our website at www.westonwood.org.
15. One final question: If there was just one thing you wish the public knew about your business, what would it be?
Lindy: We need you in whatever capacity you feel led to give: Your time, your skill sets, your financial support, your prayers.