Mother finds accessible play space to accommodate the entire family

It isn’t often that Jess Ronne finds a place her entire family can enjoy.

The Ronne family’s eight children span from 7 years old to 19. Seventeen-year-old Lucas requires specialized care and has several diagnoses, including autism, hydrocephalus, and intellectual disability.

“The world was not made for families like ours,” Ronne says. “(Lucas) requires total care. He requires safe boundaries in his life. That’s what makes him feel secure. He needs something safer than the whole world at large.”

Because of the amount of care he needs and because Lucas operates best within his routine, whole-family outings are rare, Ronne says. Sometimes, Lucas stays home with a caregiver while his siblings go on an outing he would not enjoy, such as a trip to the movies.

Accessible to all

However, at the accessible playground and barn at Benjamin’s Hope in Park Township, Lucas can swing and play with his brothers and sisters. There are the typical swings one would see at any park alongside a swing that can accommodate an adult with mobility issues and two bench swings that allow users to gently rock while sitting side by side. A merry-go-round has seats for all types of users. 

“The animals bring him comfort. We played on the playground — just the fact that it’s accessible — most (playgrounds) aren't accessible for a big 17-year-old kid,” Ronne says.
The Benjamain's Hope NEXT program is an adult program focused on whole person growth and development. Participants are mostly from the community at large and develop skills in the campus barn.
She and her husband, Ryan, enjoy walking the trails, she says.

Benjamin’s Hope is a farmstead community in Park Township that provides 24/7 care and support for adults with autism and where people of all abilities live, learn, play, and worship. 

The barn at Benjamin’s Hope is home to alpacas, goats, bunnies, chickens, peafowls, and a few barn cats. The garden there grows a variety of produce and has a sensory plot where visitors can experience the garden hands-on by digging in the sand, touching soft plants, smelling fragrant plants, and seeing vibrant colors. Harvested produce — as well as house plants and market products made by the men and women of Benjamin’s Hope — can be purchased by the public at the produce stand, which is open all summer 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The Lucas Project

Lucas Ronne suffered a stroke in utero and survived brain surgery at 3 days old. Although he continued to thrive and grow, his profound special needs require 24-hour care. His mom started The Lucas Project after seeing the dearth of available help and recognition for those parents who are by the sides of their children with special needs.

The nonprofit provides respite and support for caregivers as well as simple gestures such as gift baskets. The Lucas Project recently sponsored the production of a documentary film called “Unseen: How We’re Failing Parent Caregivers & Why it Matters.”

Being a family that includes someone with disabilities can be incredibly isolating, Ronne says.

“The whole purpose of Benjamin’s Hope is to not make this feel isolated. We always wanted to make sure we are out in the community often and the community is here often,” says Anna Irvin, with Benjamin’s Hope.

Connection

Benjamin’s Hope is a place designed for those with disabilities but that welcomes all people, she says.

That’s where the connection occurs.

Places such as Benjamin’s Hope are more than a place where families like hers feel at home, Ronne says.

“It’s peeling back the curtain a little bit and allowing the community to experience people who are different,” she says. 

Visitors to the campus are frequently welcomed by the men and women who call Benjamin’s Hope home. A few dozen residents and staff frequently ride bikes, go for walks, and enjoy golf cart rides throughout campus. 

Club Connect is a friendship club for people of all abilities and meets every Thursday from 6 to 7:30 p.m. The club allows older teens and adults to volunteer at Benjamin’s Hope and make lasting friendships with the residents. 

“There's so many lessons to be learned from people like this,” Ronne says of her son, Lucas. “He has taught me more about being a human being than any man or woman from any pulpit has.”

The walking trail around the perimeter of the Benjamin’s Hope campus is nearly one mile long and is wheelchair accessible. Sensory friendly activities line the trail. The 40-acre campus at 15468 Riley St. also includes a barn, garden, produce stand, and picnic gazebo. 

“We love seeing visitors on campus. We often see people walking their dogs on our trail loop,” says Krista Mason, founder and executive director of Benjamin’s Hope. “We have had great partnerships with local schools and groups who have created sensory experiences throughout the trail. It’s really fun to see people of all ages stopping to enjoy all there is to see and touch along the trail. We also turn our trail into a themed scavenger hunt each fall!” 

The Gathering is the weekly church service for people of all abilities. They worship every Sunday at 6 p.m., meeting outdoors whenever the weather allows. Given that many of the participants are differently abled, all are welcome at The Church of Benjamin’s Hope and all expressions of worship, including traditional and non-traditional sounds and movements, are celebrated.

After a COVID hiatus, Benjamin’s Hope’s annual Harvest Festival is returning Saturday, Sept. 17 from 3-6 p.m. There will be hayrides, a train show, pumpkin carving, free food, a helicopter landing and other attractions. 

This article is a part of a year-long series exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.