STORIES BY SIDDIE FRIAR

Final Project: Nonprofit Crafts Therapeutic Soundscapes fir Patients

Published: December 13, 2020

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Farm Animal Rescue, Celestial Farms, Has Staying Power

Published: Nov. 9, 2020

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When you visit Celestial Farms, located on Jacksonville’s Northside, there’s no doubt you’ll hear many voices calling for ‘Ms. Veronica, Ms. Veronica.’ The farm is a vibrant hub of activity and healthy living, and Ms. Veronica – that is Veronica Pasciuto the farm’s director, is quite popular among the farm’s many visitors.

Throughout the week, Celestial Farms welcomes children of all ages and abilities. They host educational programming, provide volunteer opportunities and teach people how to be more self-reliant.

But if you ask Ms. Veronica, she could never have imagined Celestial Farms becoming what it is today.

The view from the pond, overlooking the pasture. Photo by Siddie Friar.

“This is all beyond my wildest dreams,” Pasciuto said. “I absolutely never imagined myself here.” 

Celestial Farms opened its doors 20 years ago. Veronica, her sisters and mother were all educators at the time. They saw the value of teaching people to be kind to animals and in understanding where the animals’ food comes from, and they wanted to build a place to facilitate it. 

“We started out just doing therapeutic gardening,” Pasciuto said. “Then, we got the opportunity to acquire the farm and involve more kids. Then, we started with the rescues.” 

From there, Celestial Farms took off.

Today, the farm is home to dozens of animals. Ranging from senior citizen horses to a 1000 pound pig named Batman. You’ll also find several three-legged goats, a host of chickens, ducks, fish and more animal friends on the farm.

Some of the more elderly or disabled animals find their forever homes here. Others go on to be adopted by loving families.

The farm also offers a wide variety of programming and opportunities, catering to all ages and abilities. Classes cover things like soap making and animal husbandry. 

You will also find a small general store on-site. The store sells snacks for visitors to feed the animals or themselves, farm swag and an array of homemade goods. 

You can even do some urban camping at Celestial Farms. 

“Everything here has grown beyond our wildest imagination,” Pasciuto said. “With all of our volunteers and community members with their ideas, we’ve turned those ideas into a safe, comfortable environment for everybody. Definitely more than what one person could.”

A guest feeds a very loving BK, the resident steer. Photo courtesy of Celestial Farms.

There is a core team that manages the farm and the scores of volunteers with varying abilities who come in throughout the week. Volunteers at the farm help with everything, including providing medical aid for the animals, feeding them and cleaning out stalls. 

Perhaps the best part about volunteering at the farm is the opportunity to develop lasting relationships.

“I started coming here after I was in a really bad car accident,” farm volunteer Ciara Yetricek said. “I was in a lot of pain. I still am actually, but working with the animals made me feel better about the whole situation.”

Yetricek is 14 years old and loves spending time on the farm. She does her best to get her friends to volunteer too, because of how much it helped her.

“When I want my friends to come and volunteer with me I just tell them that it’s an awesome place and they get to cuddle bunnies,” Yetricek said. “My friends think the pigs are disgusting, and yeah I mean they’re pigs, but they always go for the bunnies.”

With so many lovable animals on the farm, all the staff is hard-pressed to pick a favorite. But the miniature dwarf horse Nugget seems to have a special place in everyone’s hearts. 

“He is my heart, he is so resilient,” Pasciuto said. “Even though he’s got four clubbed feet and only one ear, you look at him and think oh my goodness how can you run around and be as happy as you are? But he doesn’t show any signs of pain. He always loves to come up and see everybody.”

Nugget comes in for a close-up. Who can resist that face? Photo courtesy of Celestial Farms.

Nugget and the others are well-loved and cared for. They have sunny dispositions and are always looking for new friends with treats. The farm team looks forward to adding more therapies for their visitors and animals soon. 

Their long-term vision is to teach everyone how to be more self-reliant, caring and engaged with the world around them.

The very best part is all farm programs are free! Celestial Farms is fully-funded by donations from community members. 
To learn more about upcoming classes, workshops and the animals’ stories, you can visit Celestial Farms on the web and make an appointment to stop by.

The farm is open Monday – Saturday from 8:30a – 4:00p.

A Bright Future Means Reconciliation with an Ugly Past

Published: Sept. 30, 2020

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Moncrief Springs used to be something of an oasis, though you wouldn’t know that looking at it today.

The spring of its namesake has long since been buried. The once bustling and lively neighborhood is now a ghost. The story around how this happened is shrouded in mystery

Today, what you will find is White Harvest Farms. 

The Farm is owned and managed by the Clara White Mission. It has served the Jacksonville community for a century, and the new farm team is ready to honor the history of the land and bring the 11-acre plot back to life.

The White Harvest Farms team L-R: Farm Assistant Imani Vidal, Farm Assistant Sarah Salvatore, Soil Biologist Alan Skinner, and Farm Manager Mallory Schott. Photo by Siddie Friar

“I think the farm ties into the mission’s vision by preserving, honoring, and sharing the black history of this neighborhood, of this land in particular,” farm manager Mallory Schott said. “As the farm develops and becomes a destination, it can be a spot for a sustainable local food economy for this community to gather around.”

In the early 1900s, Moncrief was a booming neighborhood. After the spring was discovered, development was soon underway. Including a 125-mile racetrack, which quickly became one of the country’s most popular destinations. 

Its success was short-lived. Religious legislation ended up shutting down the racetrack and the parcel was never fully developed. Eventually, it came under the ownership of Earth White. An African American activist and the founder of the Clara White Mission.

“My family has been in this neighborhood since at least the 40s,” farm assistant Imani Vidal said. “The Africans that were here then made it into a community where they felt safe. Where they could use their skills and talents to give themselves a chance after all of the horrible oppression they had gone through.”

White opened a bathing house and a boys and girls club on the parcel. Both were enjoyed by African Americans until the 60s. 

Photo courtesy of UNF archives. The Eartha White bathhouse in Moncrief Springs.

The City of Jacksonville, for reasons that are still unclear, covered and diverted what was left of Moncrief Springs. They were also operating an incinerator dump nearby. The ash of which would cause damage to the lands and people for years to come. 

The effects of these decisions can still be seen and felt in the area today. Once a booming resort with freshwater and promise, now known as one of Jacksonville’s most dangerous neighborhoods with no city sewage infrastructure.

The mission renewed their efforts with White Harvest Farms in the early 2000s. They had the land remediated and are now using regenerative practices on the farm. 

“Regenerative agriculture actually helps the land over time, it’s not purely extracting,” Schott said. “We work together with the ecosystem that’s here. And that’s the knowledge we try to share with the community and our volunteers.”

After many years of planning, the mission will soon celebrate the groundbreaking of a new multi-purpose building on the farm. Once completed it will serve as a training ground for those in the mission’s culinary program, among other things.

“This new building is going to be a turning point for the farm,” Vidal said. “We will be able to have more workshops and really start to reintroduce people here to farming as a way of life. We can remember together how to respect the Earth and give back to the Earth.” 

Learn more about volunteer opportunities and workshops at White Harvest Farms here