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Easter Seals helps Iowa farmer with disabilities
Iowa Correspondent

LITTLE ROCK, Iowa — When Ryan Odens nearly lost his life in a rollover accident in his pickup truck in 2001 on the anniversary of his father’s death, he was determined more than ever to continue his family’s legacy of generational farming - despite doctors giving the young Little Rock, Iowa farmer very little hope of ever walking again.

“My lifelong dream was to run this farm,” Odens said after being diagnosed a quadriplegic when he suffered multiple vertebrate fractures in his neck and back that initially left him paralyzed from the chest down.

“I can’t express in words how much it means to me and my family that this dream has come true,” he said after working hard to complete three months of physical therapy in a Denver hospital, where he took his first steps in a warm-water therapy pool.

That dream has now come true for Odens, 35, who lives by himself and works daily on his family’s farm where he grows corn and soybeans, and raises cattle - and is an insurance agent, sells seed, operates a small trucking company with his brother, Nick.

It’s this same desire that fuels farmers with disabilities to fulfill their goal of lifelong farming that drives the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF) to give to such programs as the Easter Seals Iowa’s Rural Solutions, Iowa AgrAbility and the Farm Family Rehabilitation Management (FaRM) Program, which started in 1986 with a $50,000 seed grant from the IFBF.

In fiscal year 2004-2005, the Rural Solutions program served 51 new cases of farmers with disabilities, and 126 more farmers with disabilities from all corners of the state, according to Angela Hilbert, chief development officer for Easter Seals Iowa, headquartered in Des Moines.

“The range of disabilities varies, dependent on the age, disability, injury acquired. Services have been provided for all types of needs including quadriplegia, spinal injuries, amputations, etc.,” she said.

On average, more than 100 farm families are assisted annually. “In the nearly 20-year history of the program, a person from all 99 counties has been served,” Hilbert added.

Last week, the IFBF Foundation gave $15,000 to help farmers with disabilities stay farming through the Rural Solutions program, which works with farmers who have acquired disabilities - whether they’re hurt on or off the farm - by making modifications to their farms, adapting equipment and incorporating home accessibility options.

“The accommodations that are completed on farmer’s equipment are uniquely designed to work best for their needs,” Hilbert said. “This work is completed many times through a collaborative effort, often involving community’s volunteers.”

Founded in 1986, the Rural Solutions program has helped nearly 1,400 Iowa families affected by disabilities remain active in farming, and provides individualized assistance to farmers with disabilities to help make their homes, farms and equipment accessible.

“When you find a farmer who wants to stay farming but is limited by a disability, you want to do everything you can to help them,” said Barb Lykins, IFBF director of community resources. “The Iowa Farm Bureau Foundation wanted to take an active role in getting these farmers back to the fields as soon as possible, that’s why we made this donation.”

The program also provides a rural rehabilitation specialist to perform an assessment of the home and farming operation with changes that may include housing accommodations, hand tool adaptations, livestock handling equipment, farm machinery modifications, remote control switches and more.

Odens, who serves as the Easter Seals 2006 national adult representative, worked with Chuck Larson, Easter Seals’ AgrAbility rehabilitation specialist, to find ways to better accommodate his limited mobility.

“Each of the modifications works to improve Ryan’s ease of use and safety on the farm, reducing the possibility of a secondary injury,” Larson said. “A remote starter became a central feature on his pickup truck, allowing Ryan to lighten his way back to the truck when he works late at night in the fields.”

For example, Easter Seals installed an electric lift to a tractor and combine, worked with Iowa Department of Rehabilitation Services (IDRS) to purchase an all-terrain-vehicle (ATV) to provide faster access to the expansive farm, and added concrete flooring to some of the farm buildings and sheds to give Ryan more stable footing.

“It meant the world to us,” said Ryan’s mother, Joleen. “With Easter Seals’ help, Ryan is back to farming. Most importantly, they made it safe for him to farm again.”

In addition, the Rural Solutions program, which provides a unique service to Iowa farmers not available through any other entity in the state of Iowa, has received national and state awards and has been replicated in 30 states around the country.

“For farmers with a newly acquired disability, Rural Solutions (often) offers them the only hope they have to return to farming,” Hilbert said. “This program allows the farmer to continue to be gainfully employed, tax-paying citizens.”

Donna Elbrecht, Easter Seals president and chief executive officer, said the key to the success of the program is to develop the right set of tools for each farm family.

“With the funds from the Iowa Farm Bureau Foundation, we can ensure that the right tools and services will be available so that farmers can get back to doing what they love the most - farming.”

This farm news was published in the July 19, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.