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‘His vision of paradise’: Will Callaghan and the Mansfield farm with $24m plans

The brothers have particularly enjoyed throwing rocks in the farm dam and walking and feeding the miniature ponies, according to MASS director Simone Reeves.

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She said Will had started eating toast again at the farm, after going off it for a period following his dramatic rescue against the odds from Mt Disappointment on June 11.

Will spent two freezing nights alone after becoming separated from his family, with rescuers resorting to unusual methods to track him down, including playing his beloved Thomas the Tank Engine theme through search-party sirens to entice him from the bush.

The boys’ stay at the farm has also been the first respite for their mum, Penny, since the rescue lifted the collective spirits of a pandemic-weary nation.

“When most people who’ve been through such a traumatic event, they would have an opportunity to look after themselves, to put themselves to bed, maybe sit down in front of the TV to relax,” Ms Reeves said.

“Well, Penny’s not had the opportunity to do that at all. She’s had to continue caring for her two boys and the vigilance they require is enormous.”

Penny said she contacted MASS exhausted from the stress of Will’s disappearance and “desperately” needing support.

Will Callaghan with his mum Penny at home.

Will Callaghan with his mum Penny at home.

“Knowing you’ve got some planned respite helps you keep going,” Penny said. “If you’re in that caring role 24/7, respite can help you from getting to crisis point.

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“It is Will’s first visit to their new farm – his vision of paradise I’m sure.”

MASS is now looking to help more families like Will’s and expand its services to become a “therapeutic care farm” unique in Australia.

The proposed $24-million “Project Gamechanger” would include two new schools, a residential complex and sensory and equine therapy programs.

An on-site family camp with a pool and basketball court would give 100 families a year – many of whom have not enjoyed holidays in years – the chance to learn and spend time together in a safe environment with help at hand.

Once children were familiar with the site, families could return later for more private getaways, Ms Reeves said.

The proposed expansion might not have been possible before the introduction of the National Disability and Insurance Scheme, when short-term block funding meant strict restraints on MASS intake.

Will Callaghan smiles for photographer Eddie Jim at the farm.

Will Callaghan smiles for photographer Eddie Jim at the farm.Credit:Eddie Jim

“Now the families have the money in their NDIS plans and they have control of the money and choose the services they want,” Ms Reeves said.

“They’re choosing us, so we’re in a position where we have money for the actual service but we don’t have the physical capacity.”

The farm and Project Gamechanger would have been inconceivable to MASS founder Joan Curtis when she began building the service more than 50 years ago after the birth of her autistic son Jonathan.

So little was known about autism at the time that Ms Curtis and her late husband Humphrey, both of them doctors, were accused of bad parenting.

“I had a doctor friend and she told me in no uncertain terms it was my fault, that I had given all my love to [first child] David and Jonathan had felt neglected, and that was why he’d become autistic,” Ms Curtis, now 90, said.

“It was very unhelpful. Fortunately I didn’t take it particularly seriously. I have a talent for sifting the useful from the useless in terms of input.”

MASS founder Joan Curtis at her home in Mansfield. The first camp for autistic kids and their families in 1968 was only supposed to be a one off.

MASS founder Joan Curtis at her home in Mansfield. The first camp for autistic kids and their families in 1968 was only supposed to be a one off. Credit:Eddie Jim

The couple began taking Jonathan to paediatricians and psychiatrists in Melbourne, who all fell into the useless category.

“They said take him home and love him and then we’ll just put him into Kew Cottages,” she said.

“I wasn’t particularly satisfied with that.”

Ms Curtis and Humphrey would travel to Brisbane with Jonathan to learn from pioneering professor Rendle Short and returned to Victoria determined to pass on their knowledge to other struggling families.

The first camp in 1968 was supposed to be a one-off, Ms Curtis said, but they have not stopped since.

The 40-hectare farm just out of Mansfield in north-east Victoria which was recently purchased by MASS.

The 40-hectare farm just out of Mansfield in north-east Victoria which was recently purchased by MASS.

Next came the travelling teachers in 1970 and the first school, with just six students, began in an old Mansfield hotel in 1976.

Ms Curtis remains on the MASS board and still lives in Mansfield.

Jonathan, meanwhile, lives just down the road with three other autistic adults. They work in gardening and ornament making in one of the most picturesque parts of the state, many miles from Kew Cottages.

Ms Reeves said the target for Project Gamechanger was $16 million in government support and $3.3 from donations, with the remainder funded through the sale of the existing school and residences.

Tax deductible donations can be made via the Mansfield Autism Statewide Services website.

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