Whitewashed wooden fences contour the green fields, freshly tilled earth, and arched greenhouses of Echoing Hope Ranch. Community and living structures nest within copses verdant with trees. Mountain quail chitter when the wind blows. “It’s very peaceful here,” says Marla Guerrero, executive director of the nonprofit organization that provides respite, support, and employment to autistic teenagers and adults in southern Arizona. Guerrero understands the burden of living with an autistic family member, having striven for years to fulfill the needs—and to recognize the strengths—of her autistic son, Chris.
Echoing Hope Ranch was started by a group of friends, including Guerrero, familiar with the difficulties faced by autistic adults. They purchased land in 2009 and built the ranch, modeled upon similar programs that serve those with disabilities across the country. Today, the ranch has eight autistic residents, who live and work independently in a secure and supportive environment. Their work involves caring for their home, caring for the land, and learning to grow food.
In 2016, the ranch started its own Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Customers can purchase shares of crops grown on the ranch for a nine-week season. The seasons run successively spring through winter, and customers can purchase shares for just one season or for several.
Each week, CSA shareholders receive a wooden box full of fresh produce grown on the ranch. The crops vary depending on the time of year—Guerrero said that summer harvest includes broccoli, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, squash, melons, and corn.
The CSA crops are tended by ranch employees (many of whom are autistic), residents, and day program participants. Echoing Hope’s day program provides varied activities for autistic individuals, including horticulture, music, art, and exercise.
Echoing Hope also offers in-home services to support individuals with disabilities and their families, as well as paid and volunteer opportunities for autistic individuals. “To feel like they have some control, that they’re an important part of a team—I don’t think that’s an opportunity many people with disabilities ever receive,” Guerrero said.
“I find the ranch offers the peaceful environment that people with autism seem to really need,” she said. Over time, she has watched residents become comfortable with the rhythm of life at the ranch, especially two long-term residents: “They’ve really bonded. You don’t see that often with people with disabilities. These two don’t always talk but they understand each other and they help each other out.”
Guerrero’s son Chris died from cancer shortly after moving to Echoing Hope, where he lived independently for the first time in his life. “I believe everyone with autism has something unique to share,” Guerrero said. It’s become a guiding philosophy of Echoing Hope Ranch: To acknowledge each person as a dynamic human being, and to strive to help individuals build a satisfying life. ✜