Unique agricultural community would reach out to special needs adults

By on May 11, 2014
Jennyrae Brongo is leasing her uncle’s 55-acre farm on Manitou Road to build her vision for an agriculture-style community for adults with developmental disabilities. To the right is the rebuilt greenhouse - the first of many projects.

Jennyrae Brongo is leasing her uncle’s 55-acre farm on Manitou Road to build her vision for an agriculture-style community for adults with developmental disabilities. To the right is the rebuilt greenhouse - the first of many projects.

A little over a year ago, Jennyrae Brongo, owner of Brongo Contracting and Supply, would tell anyone who would listen about her vision to create a sustainable living environment for special needs adults. She is now making that vision a reality.

Brongo is leasing her uncle Robert Brongo’s 55-acre farm, located on Manitou Road along the Erie Canal, for Homesteads for Hope, a non-profit community farm. The property will initially offer adults with autism and other developmental disabilities a place to learn how to grow their own fruits, vegetables and flowers and sell them. “We’re starting out slow,” said Brongo. “This is just phase one of a three phase project.”

So far, a group of 25 volunteers gutted the existing greenhouse and Cornell Cooperative Extension donated a new plastic enclosure for it. Harris Seeds has donated seeds for the project as well.

Once the greenhouse is complete, Brongo’s attention will focus on the existing 18th century, 5,000 square feet barn. “The barn is structurally sound, but needs restrooms, electricity, heat, etc.,” she said. The plan is to transform the building into a “sustainability center” that would include a farm stand, café and classrooms where students can receive job training and a place to interact with the community. “The property’s proximity to the canal will make it an inviting place for community members to stop and enjoy what the farm has to offer,” she said.

According to Brongo, because the property was a working farm and that is how it will continue to be used, no permits are needed yet.

That may change down the line as she works to make the rest of her vision come to fruition. Phase two of the project includes purchasing the existing house on the property and transforming it into administrative offices, an activities of daily living (ADL) center and holistic medical center. The ADL center will provide students with a space to learn how to care for themselves and the health center will offer holistic and naturopathic approaches to the treatment of autism.

This 55-acre site along the Erie Canal, located on Manitou Road, is at the center of Homesteads for Hope, a non-profit community farm.

This 55-acre site along the Erie Canal, located on Manitou Road, is at the center of Homesteads for Hope, a non-profit community farm.

The final phase involves purchasing an additional 30 acres of property located on the other side of the former railroad bed for “homesteads” that will provide the developmentally disabled with group living arrangements and “respite homes” for their families to use in emergency situations.

Brongo Contracting and Supply now partners with the BOCES 2 Center for Workforce Development (CWD) in creating “Project Sandbox,” where Brongo gives adult students enrolled in the Heavy Equipment Operation I and II classes access to projects and land at her 16-acre gravel pit to better learn their trade. For Homesteads for Hope, her vision includes working with BOCES 2 again to give students enrolled in building trades courses at WEMOCO Career and Technical Education Center hands on opportunities.

“This is like Habitat for Humanity meets Extreme Makeover,” said Brongo. In fact, she has entered to win Ty Pennington’s Ultimate Neighborhood Give Back Challenge, a nationwide search for people and organizations doing good work in their communities. Brongo is hoping to be selected as the grand-prize winner receiving $50,000 and a day with Pennington on site helping with her project.

“The dream is to develop my uncle’s existing 55-acre farm into a one-of-a-kind agriculture community that creates an integrated ‘homestead’ that provides ‘hope’ by offering a quality of life with a purpose where everyone’s ability is recognized and embraced,” Brongo wrote on her application for the contest.

Brongo’s passion to serve the developmentally disabled is rooted in her commitment to her brother, Chucky, who suffers from nonverbal autism, and the struggles she and her family have faced over the years finding him services and support. Chucky is named after his grandfather, Charles Brongo, who started Lyell Excavating in the 1950s, was known for the major site development in the area and worked with the early Habitat for Humanity. Jennyrae’s and Chucky’s father, the late Jeff Brongo, gave Jennyrae her start in construction.

Directed by a five-member board, Homesteads for Hope is looking for monetary donations, donations of services and volunteers. Every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. is an open time for volunteers to report. More information can be found at homesteadsforhope.org or on the Homesteads for Hope Facebook page.

Photo by Grace Griffee