County zoning officials clamp down on Altadena home-based petting zoo run by former Dodger pitcher Jim Gott
By Jake Armstrong 01/27/2011
Ain’t gonna work on Danny’s Farm no more.
After nearly two years of talks with Los Angeles County zoning officials and numerous entreaties with a bothered neighbor, Jim and Cathy Gott, operators of Altadena’s Danny’s Farm, a home-based petting zoo that for three years came to serve thousands of special needs children, were forced to close the barn door for good last month.
A Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, a horse, miniature donkeys and other small livestock that helped counter the Gotts’ autistic son Danny’s at-times insular behavior while instilling valuable social and job skills in a cohort of developmentally disabled youth are now gone, shipped off to other pastures after a neighbor complained about animal noises and odors.
County zoning officials last month gave the Gotts — he a retired Dodgers pitcher turned Angels pitching coach, she the holder of a master’s degree in public administration — 30 days notice to close, ultimately ruling that a petting zoo attracting 300 youths on field trips each month exceeded what’s allowed under the Arroyo Seco-adjacent neighborhood’s zoning regulations, which permitted no more than existing horse stables.
This month, Danny’s Farm began transitioning its once farm-based, skill-building programs to the Almansor Center in South Pasadena, offering afterschool programs to even greater numbers of autistic and special needs children than before.
But with the rising number of children diagnosed with autism each year, and more than 1 million autistic children expected to become job-needing adults in the coming decade, how society will meet the changing need remains unsettled, observers say.
“I think the million-dollar question for families with teenagers with autism and other disabilities is, What’s your child going to do?” asked Cathy Gott, 48. “There clearly aren’t enough jobs for people, period, let alone specialized employment for this vulnerable, but at the same time very capable, segment of our population.”
A house of hope
About 50 years ago in Pasadena, a group of parents of Down syndrome children refused to institutionalize their offspring, as was then-common practice for handling the developmentally disabled. So they started a small school — the Pasadena Retarded Children’s Foundation, one of the first of its kind in the county — in 1961 to offer programs for their children that were lacking in public school classrooms.
Today that school is known as Villa Esperanza Services, which has grown to serve nearly 90 students from two dozen area school districts, in addition to about 200 adults who attend day and residential programs.
Autism is a neurological disorder that affects the brain’s development of communication and social skills. A government study in 2009 suggested as many as one in 100 children are diagnosed with some form of autism, up from earlier inquiries pinning the rate at one in 150 children.
Villa Esperanza — “house of hope,” in English — is almost a case study of the shift in needs that autism has wrought. What five decades ago began as a school devoted to children with Down syndrome now encompasses almost a full city block and serves autistic students nearly exclusively. So high is demand for its services that one student arrives each day in a taxi he takes from Hermosa Beach, school officials said.
Classes range from US history to basic life skills, with a growing emphasis on adapting learning to each autistic youth’s skill set in an effort to help them merge back into normal classrooms. For adults, the center offers training through an assortment of onsite jobs and even provides job coaches to those who obtain jobs offsite.
“Every situation is different,” explained Michelle Cox, Villa Esperanza’s director of development. “Our focus is independence — what’s going to get individual kids to succeed? We want them to mainstream.”
In a class for nonverbal students, that can mean using an Apple iPad during classes in the school’s speech center to communicate, whether by answering basic “yes/no” questions or typing out sentences that can’t be spoken. “If they can communicate, it’s much more powerful for them,” said Melanie Gingerich, one of the school’s speech and language pathologists.
Students arrive at Villa Esperanza’s school either by way of a parent’s request to their child’s school district or by the district determining a student would be better served a the school, according to Cox.
With the California Department of Developmental Services’ budget aligned for a $750 million cut in Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year, and similar cuts possible for years to come, the future poses a challenge. “I think staying ahead of the game and forecasting the need in the community, and the changing need, and that we’re here to serve it,” CEO Kelly White said.
‘Hard to measure’
Closure of Danny’s Farm has been difficult for Cathy Gott, who said she feels partly to blame for the closure of something that would provide meaningful employment for her son and others in similar circumstances who might otherwise go without.
“Danny has always had a tremendous affinity for animals and petting farms. Sometimes it can be hard to motivate him to want to leave the house, leave his comfort zone, and this was always something he was eager to do and enjoy a great deal,” she said. “I feel like I’ve let everyone down. I feel responsible for this.
I honestly thought that creating this space in horse stables in a community like Altadena, eclectic and open-minded, that it would be welcome.”
Danny, who is 17, is eager to get the new, larger facility up and running at the Almansor Center.
“I think we should reconfigure the business,” he said.
On the farm, caring for animals somehow seemed to breed confidence in those who visited, and the new facility, while lacking goats and ducks, will offer children rabbits to care for, the mother said.
“It’s pretty hard to measure, but pretty beautiful to watch.” she said.