Polly and Graham Sudholz’s Taminick farm is vast – 600 acres of farm land and backing onto 100 acres of rocks and trees in the Warby ranges – the kind of rolling property teenagers love to explore.
And over eight years, five in Kotupna and three at Taminick, a group of eight boys with autism have done just that.
Now ‘the boys’, as they are still affectionately called, are men, many struggling to find work.
Polly, who recently changed careers to become a disability support person at Villa Maria, said it wasn’t necessarily the skills of the boys that were preventing them getting work.
She wants employers to look beyond a diagnosis to the many skills the boys, and other with autism, have.
“Finding somewhere to work, finding someone who will give them a chance, is a real challenge,” she said.
“One of the kids I’ve got to know through Villa Maria works really hard he’s always on time or early.
“He’s really very conscientious about it because it’s a big thing for him to have a job. Whereas a lot of people take their job it for granted, which is where it’s disappointing.”
That's what people on the periphery don’t understand, there’s all these accolades about volunteering but it’s not rocket science.Polly Sudholz
The couple, who are quick to laugh and even quicker to pop the kettle on, moved from Kotupna to the Taminick farm three years ago to ‘downsize’ after their larger Kotupna property started to become a chore.
Over this time, Polly and Graham have seen first hand the eight teenagers grow into polite, capable adults.
They said volunteering for the Youth Adventures program, run through Villa Maria for the past five years, has brought true joy into their house.
“Some of the kids, they’re an absolute scream,” Polly said.
“The funniest time I’ve ever spent in the kitchen was when we were making pancakes.
“There was me and six autistic boys in a little kitchen making pancakes, there was batter going everywhere and they really enjoyed it.”
One of the aims of the program is to help the men get out of their comfort zone, with a safe and supportive environment, and prove to themselves how capable they are.
“When Graham said he was going to take the boys shearing I thought ‘Well that’s going to go really well’, but it was good,” Polly said.
“Imagine a hot smelly shearing shed and the sound of the hand piece – for anyone it’s confronting but let alone for someone more sensory sensitive.
“Yet they all coped, there were only two boys who stayed for a little while then quietly left.”
About once every eight months to a year Polly and Graham invite the men, the affectionately still call ‘the boys’, to the farm.
Together they hike off the beaten path, pick oranges from the Sudholz’s grove to make freshly squeezed juice and explore a cabin on the property.
Graham said they boys particularly like seeing the startling white newborns in lambing season and petting the old retired sheepdogs.
But mostly, the men enjoy spending time with each other and Graham and Polly.
Aside from the farm visits, Polly and Graham alternatively volunteer for weekly Youth Adventure outings run by Villa Maria’s Trish Edgar.
Ms Edgar said the couple were very special people.
“The boys love their company, mainly because they bring some humour and lots of fun to the program,” she said
“They are happy to share this gold mine with our group, and never give a second thought when it comes to being kind.
“They are just that kind of family.”
Over the years the pair have dedicated themselves wholeheartedly to Youth Adventures and other programs, Graham even trading the shearing piece for the clippers and getting manicures with a group of young girls who were carers.
“When I first did volunteer stuff I really enjoyed it and I thought this is fantastic, it’s so easy,” said Polly.
“That's what people on the periphery don’t understand, there’s all these accolades about volunteering but it’s not rocket science. You all have a good time you make sure you get home safely and everyone live happily ever after.”
As the boys become fully-fledged adults the Youth Adventures program has become even more important to them and Polly and Graham are watching, hoping employers can see what they see.
“Now some have left school there’s not that many employment opportunities for them so they do day programs,” she said.
“Other than that there’s not a lot to occupy them during the day and you know yourself if one week to another you’re not doing much you get really jack of the whole thing whereas these boys have something to look forward to.”
Graham said realistically not all the boys would seamlessly fit into a mainstream workplace but many were extremely capable or already employed.
He said over the past eight years he’s seen when supported but not coddled the boys flourish.
“I think if you have expectations of kids, they’ll rise to the expectation and these boys are no exception.”
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