Growing up on “The Farm” – Memories of Travis State School

Cathy Belliveau, Program Director
Down Home Ranch

I often wonder how we got there, and how it was that we all came to be created by that place, changed forever by our years there. 

It was as if I were meant to be there.  Even in my earliest years  I loved tagging along with Dad to the “Farm,” as a girl full of curiosity would, wanting to understand what goes on from 8-5 in the parent world.

Camp Days

It was Narnia and Disneyland all in one place, with a bit of 1984 thrown in on occasion.   It could be a nightmare but in the best years it was mostly a haunting wonderland…something fragile and dark, full of beauty and tinged with sadness, all wrapped up in a sensory overload jumble.  I see it now as captured in a giant snow globe.  Surreal and locked the memories stir when I shake them in my mind.  

It is so hard for anyone to understand who had never been there.  
To understand, you had to breathe it in…let the place seep into you to experience the sense of awe it still holds for me.  It brings me to tears even after all these years: That Farm on the hill, holy depository for the broken and the lost, the loved and the rejected, the home.  It was the playground of my teen years…my rite of passage to adulthood.  It is a big part of who I am, and a big part of me was left behind, inside those gates.

I was thirteen when I first came to the Farm.  It took a while to take everything in and allow it to enchant me, as it had so many others who dedicated their lives to the care of the people on the Farm.  I went there every chance I had.  I spent my summers there teaching and being taught.  It was the best growing up place anyone could ask for.
After all these years it is still the Farm I think of when I recall the proudest moments in my work.  I still see the faces and hear the voices….calling me back over all those years to the past.
 Their faces come back to me—bringing smiles and tears.  I see the hands of the children and those of the elderly, all needing, yet all giving.  
The Farm started as a true farm community in 1933 for those society felt needed a separate home away from the rest of us.  At first it was just for men with mental disabilities, but it expanded in my years there to open the doors to women and some children.

Cathy volunteering at Special Olympics

The older men would tell me stories of growing vegetables and working in the fields below the main campus.  That was before my time. 

How proud they were of their work and how they missed the productive years, before the rules changed and the powers that were took the farm work out of the farm and left in its place the institution.

These old gentlemen should have been someone’s grandpa….so they became mine, and I will never forget them.  And in my mind’s eye I see my red headed  six year old, with his brown vacant eyes and one hand stretched out as if searching for something.  He whirled around in his dance for one….laughing at the wind….oblivious to my presence.  How I longed to reach him and unlock the child and set him free…but in a way he was already free…free from the world that could be so cruel to someone so different.

Santa paid a visit

I remember Christmas on the Farm, with parades and bands and hundreds of smiling faces wrapped up in holiday joy.  In the summertime there were watermelon days, paddle boat races and swimming in the pool. 

We loved Halloween so much we dedicated a an entire month to prepare for it.  Staff worked tirelessly to create costumes, a haunted house, and a carnival with candy apples and games of chance. There was not a single holiday we didn’t celebrate and go all out for.

In some ways it was all such a perfect safe haven. 

But not always.  Like any loving but sometimes dysfunctional family there were hard days and times it was difficult to smile, but they were few enough in my day.  The hugs and the loving words made up for the black moments when someone forgot our purpose.  We were family to each other and to the people who lived there.

The lessons we learned about unconditional love and acceptance were gifts we all received.  Those gifts are cherished to this day, and will be remembered as long as I have any memory at all.

The pond at Travis State School

It is difficult—no, really it’s impossible—to convey the depth of love many of us had for the people and for the place.

The Farm was closed forever in 1995, shut down by people who didn’t understand what it had been able to become over the years: a sanctuary.

Shut down by people with fancy theories but precious little real experience in living and loving people with a label.
Shut down, but never forgotten.  But not by me, and not by the hundreds of other people who lived and worked there.
The Farm will always be the haunting, mystical place on the hill that changed us all.

C. Belliveau