Who Will Help Me?
By Melissa Mendonca
The Little Red Hen in ChicoStory: Melissa Mendonca Photo: Linda Bergmann
In the old folk tale of The Little Red Hen, the eponymous heroine is given a grain of wheat and asks for help to make it grow. No one comes to her assistance and so she toils away on her own.
It was a feeling that Teresa Wolk Hayes struggled with early on in the life of her now 22-year-old son, Alex, who was born with autism. “I was a registered nurse and my husband was a cardiologist and neither of us knew what it was,” she says of the diagnosis.
“I’d go to conferences on autism and it didn’t look like what I had at home,” she says of the early years. While autism is now well known in mainstream culture, when Alex was born it was obscure and resources scare.
And yet, like the Little Red Hen, Teresa toiled away. Alex was her own little grain of wheat to grow and, like any parent, she wanted what was best for him. She and her then-husband were fortunate enough to have the education and financial resources to secure the best interventions available for Alex’s development. And while these were profound, she found the support and camaraderie of other parents of autistic children just as valuable.
“It’s a whole different type of parenting,” she says, unloading a laundry list of things that differentiate raising a child with autism, “the waiting, the repetition...” Meeting others in her situation lessened the isolation and soothed the pain of parenting a child so profoundly misunderstood by many.
Teresa began facilitating strong, supportive bonds between parents by having them bring their children for swimming sessions at her home pool. The water proved miraculous for the kids and the socialization amongst parents a salve.
It didn’t take long for her to realize, though, that not all parents had access to the same resources she was able to provide for Alex. So, like the Little Red Hen, she began digging in the dirt.
Her green thumb led to plant sales that supported interventions for the children. The project caught the eye of staff at Far Northern Regional Center, who helped her develop the project into what has become The Little Red Hen Nursery in Chico.
Today the nursery is a thriving business that has won many Best of Chico awards and supplies the community with a range of plants and garden items while teaching job skills and offering income to people with developmental disabilities. No one is paid less than minimum wage.
Little Red Hen is now a nonprofit organization and its business ventures include Little Red Hen Gifts, Little Red Hen Kids & Kitchen and the newly opened The Vintage Hen. The various ventures provide diverse opportunities for people to learn skills, because, as Teresa says, “Not everyone wants to be in the garden.”
There are also a few micro-businesses supported by The Little Red Hen, including The Worm Guy (compost worms) and Floral Chicks, a small group of florists who have become skilled enough to design for weddings.
These income-generating ventures ensure sustainability for the programs and interventions that serve the disabled community, including FLOCK (Feeling Like One Common Kid), Growing Together Teens and Autism LifeSpan. Noting budget woes of government programs that serve the disabled, Teresa says, “When all the services get cut, we don’t want all these kids running around without them.”
And while sustainability, job skill development and socialization are all important, Teresa smiles widest when she says, “People step into our environment and see our strengths rather than our weaknesses.”
A particular point of pride with everyone involved with the Little Red Hen is the Park and Garden that is being developed as a safe and appropriately stimulating environment for all, including the severely handicapped. It includes art installations created within the community and 13 planter beds that allow people to learn how to grow their own food.
As The Little Red Hen network has expanded and research and interventions developed around autism, Teresa no longer feels like the proverbial little red hen. “It’s a village,” she says with a smile. “Everything is about community integration.”
Her son Alex is now in his third year at Chico State University and is working with the teens and young children seeking support in the nurturing environment of The Little Red Hen’s various programs. While the story is far from over, if it were to become its own book, it may just be categorized as inspirational or true-life tale of triumph.
www.littleredhen.info Little Red Hen Nursery • 189 E. 8th Ave, Chico • (530) 891-9100 Little Red Hen Gift Shop • 897 E. 20th St., Chico • (530) 897-0100 Little Red Hen Kids & Kitchen • 959 East Ave., Chico • (530) 894-1300 The Vintage Hen • 973 East Ave., Suite J, Chico • (530) 894-1311