JACKSONVILLE, Florida – A corner of paradise?

A local special education school, with a farm on campus, helps children grow up with opportunities they wouldn’t have anywhere else.

The North Florida School for Special Education is a nonprofit organization that teaches nearly 200 children with intellectual and developmental differences. It is located near Atlantic and Southside boulevards, a stone’s throw from the Regency Square Mall.

Many of its graduates are now working there, helping with programs and encouraging students to succeed.

The school is gaining notoriety for its farm, where students grow fruits, vegetables and even fish organically.

From farm to fork, Berry Good Farms students deliver their harvest directly to the school kitchen across campus. (WJXT)

“It’s always good to grow all of these vegetables and fruits,” said Ryan Smith, a student turned employee. “You have plenty of other gifts. There are olives on the trees. And it’s papayas over there. And these are sweet potatoes.

Smith flourished on the farm, gaining a green thumb and a lot of confidence.

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“I feel like this is my place where I can just help grow these plants,” he said.

Berry Good Farms students learn how to grow produce naturally; sustainability is the key.

The fun also comes naturally.

Farm manager Jordan Williams showed how they use the fish to fertilize the greenhouse.

“We have two tanks of tilapia,” Williams said. “They basically use the toilet in the water, we filter the water out of all the solids, and then we use the water to deliver nutrients to our plants. And so I’m going to give them a quick feed here. You can see that they are very hungry today.

Farm manager Jordan Williams showed how Berry Good Farms uses fish to fertilize the greenhouse. (WJXT)

What does this teach the students, you may ask?

“They are involved in the whole process,” he said. “They learn sustainability, responsibility. Just learn to use the foods they grow.

And from farm to fork, students deliver their harvest directly to the school kitchen across campus.

This is where the culinary team prepares the freshest school meals.

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Chef Carrie Eagle teaches gourmet cooking and shares her secret recipes for better cooking.

It’s a transformation for students and graduates, who are coming back to help.

“Since I started cooking, I’ve lost 44 pounds since I started doing this,” said LeighAnn Gray, who helps in the kitchen.

Others learn how to run a cafe, where teachers, parents, and guests can order fresh farm food and drinks.

Students serve life skills with a smile.

The proceeds also go to a food truck that raises funds for the organization’s programs. It is also sold in local markets.

In addition, the students also use the ingredients for our four-legged friends. Barkin ‘Biscuits is a big hit. The students do all the work in the bakery on campus.

“Well, I honestly think if I hadn’t come to school I wouldn’t talk to you like that,” said Anna DeStefano. “When I was younger, I was a lot less advanced. I could barely verbalize honestly. It was very difficult for me to communicate, to look at someone and to speak to them clearly like I am now.

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It doesn’t stop there: there is equestrian therapy, music lessons, art and sports.

It all centered on the word ability, not handicap.

“Our secret sauce? Do you want to know our secret sauce? Joked Debra Rains, the vice-principal of the school. “I think our secret sauce is that we really see the capabilities of our students. And so the fact that we’re not looking at what they can’t do, but we’re constantly looking at what they can do and giving them opportunities to have the same experiences as their neurotypical peers.

It is a field of dreams for which some families are moving from across the country.

“A great slice of heaven,” Rains said. “Eight acres of paradise here.”

The school accepts donations and volunteers.

To learn more, visit https://www.northfloridaschool.org/.

Copyright 2021 by WJXT News4Jax – All rights reserved.

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