When Suzanne Connors picks up her 14-year-old son Regan after his day at Our Lady of America Farm, she knows what to expect: a happy teenager.
"He just loves being out on the farm," says his mother. "He comes home glowing and talking about all the things he did. It’s so nice to see a smile on his face."
That’s just one of the results Joe and Kim Lukens hope to see happen over and over again at Our Lady of America Farms, which opened late in 2011 with two locations in Morrow, Ohio, and Rome, Ind.
The couple wants to emphasize the dignity of human beings and the dignity of work as they help those with cognitive or developmental disabilities.
Seeking the will of God in their lives, they were led toward "helping these challenged people with Down syndrome and especially with autism, where the population is growing in staggering numbers," explained Joe Lukens.
According to the Autism Speaks website, autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the United States, affecting one in 88 children.
Yet, says Kim Lukens, "moms look at their children like I look at my children; they want them to live out their fullness." The Lukenses have five children, age 10 through 27.
The Lukenses learned that the biggest concern for parents was employment for their older teens and adult children with disabilities, and their farms grant employment opportunities for this special population.
"Everybody wants to feel respected and that they are needed and have value and are appreciated," says Kim. "All those things you try to do in the way you talk to people and give them responsibilities and opportunities."
When young Regan goes to the farm in Ohio, he not only gets the opportunity to do the work he loves to do, such as painting fences and helping transfer cows from one pasture to another, he receives a modest paycheck for his work.
"Getting paid was a big surprise, too," says his mother. "Regan had never gotten paid for anything. He was so proud of that little check he got for painting fences. If you could have seen the look on his face! He is cherishing that check and making big plans."
All of this help is needed, as the farms are raising grass-fed, organic Angus beef for sale (see ordering information at end of story). The Lukenses hope the revenues will help the nonprofit farm eventually become self-sustaining.
Right now, the Ohio farm has 16 cows and a bull, while, three and a half hours away, the Indiana farm is preparing to be the major venue for beef production, with a bigger herd and expansive pastures.
Long-range goals include raising free-range chickens and organic fish and vegetables, plus woodworking.
Kim notes that God’s will is at the heart of this farming effort. She has been a frequent Massgoer "to try to discern what he would want us to do."
"God has put this in our hearts to do," emphasizes Joe, "so we’re going to go about trying to do it."
Most of the cash capital for the farms came from the investment opportunities Joe grew in his insurance business, which he no longer owns. A member of the Catholic Psychotherapy Association and part of CatholicTherapists.com, Kim closed her counseling ministry in March 2013 in order to work with Joe full time.
"Because of our faith," notes Kim, "we want to use our talents and resources to help those in need and maybe create a model for more people to come up with solutions — a community solution — to help adults who are more vulnerable due to cognitive, social and developmental challenges, rather than looking at the federal government."
They do not want government assistance "because we want to have Christ in the center of the mission," she explains. "We don’t want a faith restriction in the middle of it — that will definitely infringe on our freedom and religious stand."
While neither Joe nor Kim have backgrounds in raising cattle, they are learning quickly and are "going to trust in God to bring us the people who will help us to fulfill this mission of creating a Christian community taking care of those who are marginalized and creating dignity," says Joe.
Regan’s experiences are the promising tip of the iceberg, due to his love of animals and nature.
"He relates to people best when talking about those interests of his," his mom says, "and that’s definitely what he found when he went to visit Kim and Joe."
"My heart was just full because it’s very rare you find people who will stop and take time [to spend time with him]," adds his mother. "This happens to be a perfect match."
"The Lukenses are the most generous people I know," says Deacon Paul Leibold of St. Philip the Apostle Church in Morrow, Ohio, whose great-uncle and namesake is the late Cincinnati Archbishop Paul Leibold. For a number of years, he has known the Lukens family as parishioners and friends.
"They have a very strong Catholic understanding of our faith," Deacon Leibold explains. "They understand what God has given to them." The Lukenses know that "they are to move forward and bring others closer to God. The farm is an extension of that. They saw the needs of people with autism and other needs, and they are finding an opportunity for these people."
Our Lady and the Land
The Lukenses first thought they would name their farming endeavor Our Father’s Farm.
But Kim credits the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for the name of Our Lady of America.
In 2007, when he was archbishop of St. Louis, Cardinal Raymond Burke reviewed the present state of the devotion to Our Lady of America at the request of a group of the faithful, and he shared his findings in a letter addressed to the bishops of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He made clear that the devotion had been approved and actively promoted by Archbishop Leibold. Then succeeding bishops also approved and publicly participated in the devotion.
Cardinal Burke wrote in his letter: "In a particular way, Our Lady of America expressed her desire that the United States of America, through her intercession, be devoted to the purity of love. … Our Lady of America calls the people of our nation to the New Evangelization through a renewed dedication to purity in love."
The words of the official "Prayer to Our Lady of America," which bears an imprimatur, inspired Kim and Joe.
"This country needs to go back to purity," Joe reflects. "The more pure we are, the more effective the Holy Trinity is inside of us. That goes down to the very basic human existence. [But] this country has gotten away even from the purity of how we treat our land and animals, and that trickles (down) to how we treat each other."
For Our Lady of America Farms, this dedication to purity means using no herbicides or antibiotics, but "waiting in God’s time, and that’s the patience part — not getting greedy to make these animals develop quicker than they should, but letting the purity of nature take its course," Kim points out.
On the next level, she says, it’s also about treating someone with a disability "as a person who has just as much value as anyone else that God created."
Deacon Leibold affirms the purity aspects.
He explains that when we think of Our Lady of America, "we see a call to being honest with ourselves and honest with one another and not being caught up in the things of the world. The farm brings us a representation of that — pure and clean and of God and nature and not bringing in all the things from the outside that corrupt that purity."
Overall, the farm will "create an opportunity for these people with honest, good, simple outside work," says Joe, "so we hope the community creates enough revenue to support itself as a self-sustaining, nonprofit organization."
As Deacon Leibold puts it, "This project will continue to be blessed because it’s from a pure heart that it’s being formed."
Joseph Pronechen is a
Register staff writer.
To order Angus beef or to learn more, visit OurLadyofAmericaFarm.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.