Evan Weesies sees himself as a typical farm kid, exploring the farm, cruising through mud puddles and sand, and soaking in the essence of each farm building.
The fifth-grader experiences life as a happy, funny, sociable 11-year-old on a fourth-generation family farm in Montague that supplies the Weesies Brothers Garden Centers.
Farm kids everywhere share a common experience growing up while working side by side with parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. It provides a sense of belonging and purpose in being part of something larger than oneself.
While Evan’s experiences are similar, they are also different. He was born at 23 weeks gestation, then spent four months at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) in Grand Rapids. “We knew from day one Evan wouldn’t come out of this unscathed,” says his mom, Lindsey.
Evan was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, and the Weesies family has tackled the challenges of parenting a special needs child, balancing the needs that come with his diagnosis, yet treating him no differently than his 8-year-old sister, Giana.
A children’s storybook
The family farm in Muskegon County raises field corn, sweet corn, pumpkins, and bedding plants. The family also operates a landscape/lawn care business.
Evan’s father, Ryan, explains that the U-pick pumpkin patch and fall activities on the farm became an enterprise because of Evan’s fascination with the 2004 movie and book “Spookley the Square Pumpkin.”
Fifth-grader Evan Weesies's all-terrain wheelchair gives him the mobility to move around his farm.
“The DVD was Evan’s favorite, and we watched it over and over,” Ryan says. “I wanted to get him a square pumpkin but couldn’t find anything, but while looking online, I landed right on the Spookley web page.”
Ryan shared Evan’s story with Spookley’s team, which relayed the story to creator Joe Troiana. The news came on Troiana’s birthday, and he said it was the best birthday present he ever received. He sent the family autographed copies of the book and DVD, and encouraged them to use the story in conjunction with a start-up pumpkin patch enterprise on the farm.
Starting with a small patch, the attractions, events, school groups numbers, and patch grew to a point where — prior to COVID-19 — nearly 2,000 schoolchildren visited each September and October.
During a field trip, children hear the story of Spookley, a square pumpkin who’s different from the rest. But his perfectly imperfect shape allows him to save all of the round pumpkins when disaster strikes the patch. Students then enjoy the playground, a barrel train ride, hiding out in the orange pumpkin hut, a scavenger hunt, and a trip to the pumpkin patch to make their selection.
Spookley’s underlying anti-bullying theme resonated with the Weesies, who knew the potential for Evan to be on the receiving end of bad behavior was a possibility. The farm’s pumpkin patch and message are a small way they can help create a foundation of acceptance for Evan and others whose physical condition limits or changes how they navigate life.
“The pumpkin patch is very personal to us,” Ryan says. “We call it Evan’s Pumpkin Patch and we are all proud of it. My dad thinks it is the coolest thing in the world.”
Technology opens doors
Although he can walk, Evan uses a walker or chair at school to help navigate longer distances. But his freedom and mobility were limited on the farm.
“We researched track chairs, but insurance wouldn’t pay for one,” Lindsey says.
A track chair is a hand-operated outdoor mobility aide. Though not ideal in tight spaces, it can move the rider through rugged terrain.
A track chair vendor referred Lindsey and Ryan to Michigan AgrAbility, an organization that helps farmers and farm families who experience a disability obtain assistive technology to keep working on the farm. The organization operates under a grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and is a partnership between Michigan State University and the nonprofit Easterseals Michigan.
Ned Stoller, ag engineer and assistive technology professional for Michigan AgrAbility, visited the farm to assess Evan’s mobility needs. He recommended an electric power chair as an alternative because it provides better maneuverability and is powerful enough to carry Evan through most of the farm — at a lower cost.
The family chose the power chair, paying for most of it themselves, with help from a small grant through Easterseals using funds designated by donors for the AgrAbility farmer fund.
“The all-terrain wheelchair gives Evan independent access to learn where his skills are and where his future will be on the farm,” Stoller says.
Freedom to cruise
“This is so cliché, but my folks literally live over the river and through the woods,” Ryan says. “We all live on the same farm. Evan now has the freedom to cruise over to their house in his chair on his own.
“Dad sends pictures of Evan’s tracks. He is so proud.”
Evan’s new freedom also will enable him to spend time in the pumpkin patch this fall.
“We just spent several hours wandering the farm together,” Lindsey says. “The wheelchair and modified stroller would get stuck in the sand. This time, we walked all over the farm, and he could use his power chair and be in control, something we could never do before.”
Evan says the power chair is life-changing.
“He just wants to stay outside and go,” Lindsey adds.
Parenting a child with a disability
Lindsey recounts the couple’s emotions early in Evan’s diagnosis. “You start thinking about why? All the things you think for your child’s future are just taken away. We wondered if he would have friends, a girlfriend, and a normal life.”
Evan’s growth and development lagged. “Our friends would talk about what their kids were doing, like saying the ABCs, and we have this child. Today, he’s breathing on his own, and that is huge for us,” Lindsey says.
“We see so many positive things in Evan and his progress, and we celebrate everything he does because he shouldn’t even be here. Yes, it’s hard, but there is beauty in it, too. He makes us grateful for everything. He has definitely taught us not to sweat the small stuff.”
At school, Evan sometimes leaves his class for specialized learning, but most of the time, he’s in a mainstream classroom. Classmates offer to help him move between chairs, push his wheelchair, and more. It’s just a part of being Evan’s friend.
“I think kids with special needs are viewed completely differently than when I grew up,” Lindsey says. “With all the anti-bullying initiative, it is just way better than it was.”
Working around limitations
Evan has learned to work around his limitations.
“Even with his disability, there is so much he can do,” Ryan says.
Taking tickets at the pumpkin patch, tagging potted plants, and other age-appropriate tasks are now at Evan’s fingertips.
And, as agriculture becomes more automated, Ryan sees real opportunity in the future — not just for Evan, but for anyone with a disability who wants to work in agriculture.
“At one point, a career in ag may have been more off-limits in a lot of sectors, but with innovative technology and things always changing, it could lead to Evan being able to drive a tractor at some point, or do office work.”
Now, Evan can explore possibilities and find where his skills and interests fit on the farm, if that is the future he desires. His family’s support will help him find his place, wherever it is. If Evan chooses the farm, he has a distinct advantage over others who may want his job — Evan knows the owner.