Farm provides therapy, jobs to those with special needs

Pastor Andrew Choo (far left) talking Josiah Kiang through a mood swing at the Onesimus Garden farm. Mr Kiang, who has autism, had become sulky about being photographed. Pastor Choo uses farming as a form of therapy to help young people with special
Pastor Andrew Choo (left) talking Josiah Kiang through a mood swing at the Onesimus Garden farm. Mr Kiang, who has autism, had become sulky about being photographed. Pastor Choo uses farming as a form of therapy to help young people with special needs.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Pastor's farm in Lim Chu Kang has helped more than 20 young people so far

Mr Josiah Kiang, 20, who helps out at a farm in Neo Tiew Road, was supposed be photographed for an interview last Wednesday but became sulky over an unrelated matter and was not in the mood.

An hour later, the man behind the farm, Pastor Andrew Choo, 55, walked up to Mr Kiang, put an arm around him and asked: "Why are you sulking?"

He then led Mr Kiang to a plastic tank of goldfish where the young man finally cracked a smile and agreed to be photographed as he demonstrated his work.

This is all in a day's work for the pastor who, together with some business partners, started the 3.4ha vegetable farm in Lim Chu Kang in 2014 with more than a million dollars.

He believes farming and nature can help soothe those with special needs and give them employment.

Since then, Onesimus Garden has helped more than 20 young people with special needs like Mr Kiang, who has autism. They are paid $2 or $5 an hour, depending on how well they carry out their duties which include tasks such as planting seeds or tending to hydroponic plants.

The vegetables - from kailan to lettuce and mint - are sold to shops and restaurants, or to subscribers who pay $350 a month for 12kg of vegetables.

At the moment, the farm produces about a tonne of vegetables a month - a level which the pastor says is not profitable. He hopes to bring production levels to a tonne a day eventually.

Many special needs youth at the farm cannot find jobs elsewhere due to their temperaments, said Pastor Choo.

Mr Kiang, for example, can get violent when he does not get his way.

"Just look at this chair," said his mother Melody Kiang, 52, a housewife. The former teacher pulled up a battered plastic chair which was broken in multiple places when her son threw it at her. Another time, he took out his frustrations on her by pulling her hair.

Pastor Choo is working with the family to help Mr Kiang redirect his anger and express it in other ways.

The pastor has had much experience with youth with difficulties. He founded Andrew and Grace Home for girls in 1998 and was there until 2010. He also spent two years at Assumption Pathway School for students who failed their Primary School Leaving Examinations.

Mrs Kiang and her son stayed at the farm for a week until last Thursday, learning how to manage the young man's "crisis" of bad moods through methods such as shouting at him to jolt him out of a tantrum and using key words to calm him down.

Mr Kiang usually goes to the farm twice a week, travelling there on his own after classes at Pathlight School in Ang Mo Kio.

Farming has made him more patient, said Mrs Kiang.

Added Pastor Choo: "Going back to nature helps with his mental state and farming makes him useful."

The farm has air-conditioned cabins for families to spend the night. Pastor Choo and his wife live on the farm, too.

He said his biggest challenge is finding staff who can handle young adults with special needs. It takes three to four people to hold Mr Kiang down if he throws a violent tantrum, for example.

Onesimus Garden now has seven employees, including the farm director, a finance manager and a counsellor.

Having worked on the farm since August, Mr Kiang has formed a close bond with Pastor Choo and his team. He allows the pastor a hug as he sprays some plants, asking: "Like that, Pastor?"

"I like planting, I like helping on the farm," Mr Kiang said. Asked who was his best friend at the farm, he answered without hesitation: "Pastor!"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 06, 2016, with the headline 'Farm provides therapy, jobs to those with special needs'. Print Edition | Subscribe