It’s a busy day for Trevor Barry. Bundled in a coat and hat, with a wicker basket close at hand, he reaches into cozy nesting boxes where five fat hens cluck and rustle. Carefully gathering their eggs, he sorts and tallies them by hue (brown, blue, green, and white) and carries the eggs back inside. Working with care providers who help out at the Lake Bluff group home he shares with another autistic adult, Trevor will go on to package and label the eggs, and bag fresh-baked trays of bone-shaped doggie treats, before the morning is through.
It’s all part of Trevor’s routine with EGGceptional Abilities, a micro-business program shaped to provide Trevor and his group home with meaningful work in a structured and supportive environment. EGGceptional Abilities sells the beautifully hued eggs at two Lake Forest locations: Elawa Farm and Lake Forest Juice, as well as Forest Greens Juice Bar in Lake Bluff. The dog treats and a few personal care products are prepared during the winter to sell at seasonal fairs.
Started in 2015, EGGceptional Abilities was the brainchild of Trevor’s mom, Mary Ann Barry, and her partner and co-founder Pete Baranek. For the seven years prior to launch, Barry, a paralegal with Edward Jacks in Lake Forest, had struggled to help her son acclimate to the day-program and residential programs he participated in.
“I wish I knew who originally said, ‘When you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,’ because it’s true,” says Barry. “Each has such individual needs. We tried everything we could think of to make the available, more general programs work, but Trevor was just spiraling. We finally realized that we were going to have to take matters into our own hands, shaping a program that was a better fit.”
Brightly blue-eyed and intensely focused Trevor, who is now 30, functions with the age equivalent for adaptive behavior of a 5-yearold. In addition to autism, he has seizure disorder, and behavioral, anxiety, and sensory issues. Placing Trevor in a smaller group home was one part of the solution Barry found to help her son thrive. Raising backyard chickens was the other.
It made sense that the smaller-occupancy group home setting reduced Trevor’s anxiety and behavioral issues. But how did Barry hit upon hens as the other half of the equation?
“It was the combination of several things,” she says. “We wanted to create a job that was home based, and we really liked the idea of something that would get Trevor outside and engaged with nature. As well, there had been a coop in the backyard before this became a group home. Pete grew up on a farm in Wisconsin where raising animals was always a part of the picture. And I have always loved farms and farm animals. The more we thought about it, the tasks involved in raising chickens, and collecting and selling their eggs, were all structured jobs from which Trevor, and the group home, could benefit.”
Sprouting wheat grass and tending a raised-bed garden to help feed the chickens, collecting and packaging their eggs, recording and delivering orders, and doing chores in the coop are all tasks that Trevor now accomplishes with adult supervision.
“In the beginning, we started small, with a little mail-order coop we built, and four hens, just to see how Trevor would do with this,” says Baranek. “He took to it really well. So, we expanded the coop to add more chickens, and I built a chicken run and easy-to-access nesting boxes that are made with sensory issues in mind.”
Barry and Baranek selected breeds that lay multi-colored eggs. The varied colors make for a jewel-box presentation—easy for Trevor to sort, and highly prized by his customers.
While the flock changes from year to year, EGGceptional Abilities birds have included breeds such as Buff Orpingtons, which lay brown eggs; Olive Eggers, which lay green ones; and Midnight Majesty Marans, which lay eggs that are almost copper in hue.
After boxing the eggs Trevor also accompanies his team on delivery runs. “The deliveries are a wonderful opportunity for social engagement and for positive interactions with the community,” says Barry.
For its part, Forest Greens, which is located right around the corner from the group home, can’t get enough of the eggs. “They are beautiful, fresh, natural eggs,” says owner Annemarie Ranallo. “We use them in the gluten-free foods we make here, and also sell the fresh eggs in six pack cartons, which quickly sell out.”
Bringing the exchange full-circle, Forest Greens saves its organic vegetable waste for EGGcep tional Abilities to feed the chickens, and to use in composting its vegetable gardens.
Looking ahead, Barry says she and Baranek plan to purchase a small farm in the next year in order to grow the flock of hens, and add other poultry breeds, such as turkeys, ducks, and quail. In addition, they have set up a nonprofit, the ASD Foundation, Inc., with potential to include programs on the farm for autistic and other developmentallydisabled individuals.
“Trevor’s behaviors and his sense of self-worth have improved so much since we started EGGceptional Abilities,” sums Barry. “We’d like to expand that to benefit others. Our program is beautiful in its simplicity. Not trendy, or reliant on anything technical. We are dedicated to keeping the focus on providing meaningful tasks and a sense of self-worth for these individuals who need it so much.”
For more information on EGGceptional Abilities, or The ASD Foundation, please contact Mary Ann Barry at 847-494-6700.