Allegheny County Farm Provides Peaceful Setting for Social Programs

Article excerpt

Julia and Mija nibble bright-orange papaya pellets, hand-fed by visitors who peer into their metal cages in the barn.

The rabbits' thick, fluffy fur is soft, a cushioning cloud that will bring comfort and warmth someday after it is gently brushed away and spun into wool for sweaters or scarves. But now, the two animals -- Julia, a French Angora, and Mija, an English Angora -- and their fuzzy companions bring solace and joy to volunteers and visitors at Angora Gardens in White Oak.

Indeed, there is more to this place than cuddly bunnies.

"No matter who walks through that gate, they are treated with respect," says Loretta Carr, 65, of White Oak, a therapeutic instructor who has worked at the garden farm for more than a decade.

"The people here are the most loving people you'd ever meet."

Angora Gardens, a developmental program offered through Mon Yough Community Services, centers around a century-old farmhouse along Muse Lane in White Oak Park. It provides training and social rehabilitation to anyone who needs to develop or regain skills necessary to live, work and socialize in their community.

The farm's 30 or so volunteers are mentally ill or developmentally disabled consumers in the mental health system who participate in horticultural, art and animal therapy programs. They tend to flowers and vegetable plants in two greenhouses, work in extensive gardens on the four-acre grounds, care for Angora rabbits in the barn, create art projects for sale in the farmhouse gift shop and take visitors on tours offered Tuesdays through Saturdays.

Along the way, they are honing social and life skills.

"They get self-esteem here. They feel this gives them a reason to live because they are giving something back," Carr explains. "They build a family here, and in this place, people don't judge."

Historic roots

James Vogel, 46, of Baldwin, is a volunteer who takes pride in his daily tasks at the farm. He feeds and cares for the rabbits and works in the gardens, but insists that offering tours is his speciality.

Vogel guides visitors around the grounds, through the rabbit barns, past the pond and into the greenhouses, rattling off tidbits of information and historical facts about the property once known as "Galilee." He offers each visitor a bookmark -- a laminated orange construction paper carrot decorated with a green crepe paper tie -- as a souvenir.

There are fruit trees, pines, rhododendrons, azaleas and daisies. Splashes of pink, purple and yellow decorate the flower beds. A cactus garden fills a large, wooden bed. Bits of brightly colored glass and stones embedded in concrete decorate the sidewalk entrance leading to the property and form a large mosaic name sign in the yard.

The site's history dates to 1783, when the government built a block house here to shelter people during confrontations with Indians. The old Rollins Road -- believed to be the predecessor to Muse Lane -- joined Route 30 and the Lincoln Way and was traveled by George Washington and Gen. Edward Braddock.

A settler named Anthony Rollins bought the land from the government and built a cabin and a barn, but the farmhouse wasn't built until John J. Muse bought the property in 1883. Muse also planted the orchard and gardens.

His son, John Muse, who became one of the best known farmers in Western Pennsylvania, lived in the house until his death March 4, 1910, at the age of 77.

In subsequent years, the property and a half dozen neighboring farms were acquired by Allegheny County and combined to become the 810-acre White Oak Park during the late 1960s. It is one of nine in the county's 12,000-acre parks system.

Daily work

Vogel and his wife, Nicki, 35, come to the farm almost every day. They feel comfortable working with their friends and are grateful to be doing something productive at such a beautiful place. …