Amy Groshell and her husband, Howard, own and operate Peace of Heart Community, a residential group home for young people who have autism. They also offer a day program and a very popular farmer’s market each Saturday.
Tell me about the Peace of Heart Community.
We bought the property in 2015. Our daughter at the time was in a group home in Orange Park. It wasn’t a desirable situation, so we tried to find other homes that would take a nonverbal young woman with some aggressive tendencies. Nobody was interested.
So, we found this property. It took a while to build it, design it and get it up to code (because we are a state-licensed home). And we received our first resident in January 2019.
We serve young, nonverbal individuals with autism. We are a residential group home, but we’re also a privately funded day program. We call our day program Peace of Heart Enrichment. That’s open to anyone with autism or a related disability in the community, because not everybody wants to live in a group home or has such high support needs.
So, we have Peace of Heart Enrichment where we have our organic garden and farm.
(The program’s participants) learn how to make the soil and grow the vegetables. They even help at the farmer’s market — we host a market every Saturday. In the summertime, it’s from 10 to 1.
Our biggest markets are during our growing season, which is going to be October through end of May. The community can come out and buy ala carte or we have what’s called CSA memberships. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. When you buy a membership, you get more for your money. But you do have to pre-purchase it.
So, that’s what our project entails. There are really two components: the group home that has 24/7 care and the enrichment program where individuals from the community can come, learn skills, take care of the animals.
In the summer, we do camps. … We try to make it educational. I think in the special-needs realm people just cater to their leisure activities. We go by a principle called presumed competence. That essentially just means no matter what you’re seeing on the exterior — because autism, their bodies are kind of highjacked — we feel deeply that they’re intelligent and that they want the same things in life that you and I want: purpose, relationships, community and meaningful things to do during the day.
That’s what we’re all about really — presumed competence and trying to give these individuals the support they need so that they can live as full a life as possible.
How many people live there?
We have beds for six. Our dream is to open more homes and have our Palm Valley location be like our flagship location. And we’re building an outdoor pavilion, so we can even host more social events. Maybe do some canning from our garden, and then offer more products.
Really, the backbone of what we do is volunteer. We get thousands of volunteers out there. People just google us, find us and we love, love, love the high school kids who need their community service hours. And we’re able to expose them to autism in a way that they haven’t been exposed before.
What do you grow in your garden?
Really big in the fall/winter, we get great lettuce. Tons of collards. We did tomatillos, tomatoes. We had thousands of pounds of cucumbers. Like, 500 pounds a week we were getting of cucumbers.
We’re excited with our pavilion. We’ll be able to do canning. We’re going to hopefully have salsa and salad dressings and tomatoes and a lot of pickled things.
We do follow the organic practices. We are not certified, but we don’t use any chemicals at all. And we even make our own soil. So, it’s pretty intense. My husband’s a purist.
We do chicken, now. We’re processing our own chicken, free-range birds. We sell the eggs, too, at market.
Who’s involved in the growing?
Volunteers, and then we have three to five farm staff at any given time out there. … and then our young people from the enrichment program are out there.
And we do employ a handful of young adults with autism who live in the community.
What do you like best about what you do?
We love connecting with the community, because autism is so isolating.
I think bringing the community to the garden where our people feel comfortable and competent and they’ve got the support staff there — it’s just been a great integration. We can share more of our beliefs about autism, which aren’t really the mainstream beliefs. Presumed competence, that’s not a mainstream belief.
Go to any (college) class and they’ll be saying that our kids have the intelligence of a 2-to-3-year-old. But we just don’t buy it. They’re out there working. What 2- and 3-year-old’s out there working?
Tell me about your husband.
His name is Howard Groshell. He’s actually the brains behind the garden, the farm at Peace of Heart.
What do you like best about living on the First Coast?
I grew up in a cornfield in Indiana, so I love the beach. I love just being within walking distance.
I love the lifestyle, just being able to be outside a lot. The beach itself is like a small community, and I love that, too. People know each other, help each other out. We’re really blessed to be there.
How do you like to spend your free time?
Right now, my free time involves running kids all over the place. I’m like a Mom-Uber.
I love beach walks, riding bikes around the neighborhood. And I try to do a little yoga here and there. Physical activities mostly.
I do enjoy watching my kids find the sports that they’re passionate about. They spend a lot of time in gymnastics or flag football. I love it all.
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