By Carla Lucas
The Barn at Spring Brook Farm is a welcoming place for children with special needs. Its founder, Mary Beth Drobish, wanted to give children with disabilities somewhere they could have fun while caring for farm animals and doing farm chores.
Drobish built a handicapped-accessible bank barn on her 17-acre property on Locust Road in Pocopson Township, formed a board of directors, hired staff and organized volunteers. She created The Barn's experience from scratch. It's been working since 2006.
“My number-one goal was to bring kids here to have fun, to have something special for a child [with special needs] to do,” Drobish said in a 2009 interview. “If, while the kids are here, we can help them meet some goals, that would be great, too. For some, The Barn is a distraction from a life full of medical procedures and surgeries.”
On June 11, a letter was mailed to friends, family and supporters of The Barn. It began, “It is with heavy hearts that we write you today to let you know The Barn at Spring Brook Farm will cease operations ... we have been embroiled in a protracted dispute with one of our neighbors.”
The result of this dispute, which began more than two years ago, was the necessity for The Barn to apply for a conditional-use hearing, which was conducted in the fall of 2013. The impact of the hearing was 34 conditions placed on The Barn by Pocopson Township's supervisors in December 2013 in order for the organization to continue at its current location. They cannot immediately comply with all the conditions, so on Aug. 31, The Barn is scheduled to close.
The issue is on the agenda for the July 14 Pocopson Township board of Supervisors meeting, however, and supporters hope that an agreement can be reached on the conditional-use ruling.
According to Dan Stark, The Barn's executive director, the organization tried to alleviate the concerns of the neighbor.
“We understand she had some valid concerns and issues,” Stark explained. To address these issues, parking was moved to the opposite end of the property, where it would have no impact on the neighbor.
Among the conditions placed on The Barn was the construction of a fence along the northern property line, improvements to the structure and parking areas, and limits on when and to what capacity The Barn could operate. Under the conditions, it could have only one fundraiser at the site each year. It could serve only three children an hour between the hours of 2 and 6 p.m. on weekdays and could not operate on weekends. It could have only one Saturday social event in the spring term and the fall terms. It could only host two school field trips per month during its spring and summer terms. No rides on its animals would be allowed.
Stark said the reaction to the June 11 letter was immediate and extensive, with phone calls and e-mails from volunteers, families and donors wanting to offer their support. On social media, the story went viral. “People were calling out of the blue,” Stark said. “It went beyond the letter. It is truly amazing.”
A capacity crowd of supporters came to the last Pocopson Township board meeting and spoke about the The Barn and its mission.
“Our supporters like what we are doing,” Stark said. “Their support is humbling, as they will do just about anything to save the organization.”
Offers of help -- from financial donations to construction companies offering to do work -- have poured in, but everything is on hold until a long-term plan is in place.
“We are exploring partnerships with other organizations to find a way to survive if we cannot find the time and resources (to do what must be done on site)," Stark said.
Part of the problem is that none of the supervisors have come to see the program, even though they've been invited.
“It's hard to measure the impact of our program if you haven't seen it,” Stark said.