Family finds assistance at local nonprofit farm

By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local
City girl Siew Cheng Tan nearly gagged the first time she shoveled horse waste at Hand in Hand Farm, Inc., but now cleaning stalls is one of her favorite tasks. Her 3-year-old daughter, Aerin – named after a character in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” series – prefers other tasks, like sweeping.
Three days a week the two can be found volunteering at the nonprofit organization, which provides mentorship and life skills training. They go there for Aerin, who was diagnosed in December with high-functioning autism, but Tan gets just as much out of the work.
Tan moved from Singapore to Corvallis at the end of 2019 when her husband, Brad Camburn, took a job teaching mechanical engineering at Oregon State University. They met in the gaming community while Camburn started his PhD at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.
Early on, Tan suspected her daughter had autism. Aerin’s speech seemed delayed, she wouldn’t interact with other kids and sometimes she would “zone out,” Tan said.
“She pretend [sic] like she’s dead,” she said. “She doesn’t respond. No eye contact, no back and forth.”

THREE-YEAR-OLD Aerin takes responsibility for a shovelful of old horse bedding while mom watches.

By the time Aerin was 2 years old, Tan and Camburn were exhausted. The doctors hadn’t yet diagnosed the child. That’s when they toured Hand in Hand and found themselves returning once a week.
After less than a year, Tan’s seen a big difference in Aerin’s behavior. She’s become more attentive to her mother, learned tasks, began eating new foods, potty-trained, started helping with chores at home and found a best friend.
Dave Berger and Athena Perry opened Hand in Hand Farm, Inc. in 2006 with a mission to “help rebuild individuals, children, and families.” Berger has been using animals as a therapy tool for others since 1962. Diagnosed with autism himself, and growing up in leg braces, he learned that horses, mules and farm projects allowed him to interact with a world in which he felt limited.
“With my crooked leg, that was the only time I had mobility, and with autism, the only time I could understand what was going on,” he said. “I realized when I was in junior high school that I could help other kids that way.”
Children, some of whom can be as young as 2 years old, attend Hand in Hand camps with their parents, who are also tasked with learning new skills themselves. Berger and Perry teach the families how to manage day-to-day duties on the grounds and work on projects, such as rebuilding old trailers or laying new irrigation lines. As a result, kids learn a variety of practical and psychological life skills and parents learn new parenting and management techniques.
Attendees may have a physical or learning disability, be “troubled” or just want to learn how to work. Berger has seen angry and afflicted kids find healing and a sense of responsibility. In one example, he said, a boy with a 2.5-second attention span was able to trim weeds for nine hours. After he learned how to concentrate, he went up two grade levels in two weeks.

MOM AND DAUGHTER use personal-sized shovels to unload fresh bedding as part of their weekly chores at the farm.

Aerin’s transformation is not unlike his.
“She’s been going through all the stages of development really, really quickly,” Perry said. “She’s starting to catch up.”
Aerin has also been a positive influence on other children at the farm, one of whom was an 18-month-old who wanted to potty-train after Aerin received positive attention from it.
Tan said she now has an improved version of her daughter and of herself, as well.
“It’s not just a place for children,” Tan said. “I feel like it’s a place for parents, too.”
She said Berger and Perry are like family, part of a team. Tan and Camburn learned to find common parenting ground, and they joke that they get their gym workout at the farm. When Aerin cries or acts out, Tan no longer worries as much because she’s confident she can manage it. She also overcame her fear of driving, which allowed her to visit the farm two extra days a week.
“Now I can manage my family,” she said. “I feel like everything’s in control. This is a place where I can fall back on.”
In February, Tan attended the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce’s Distinguished Service Awards banquet with Perry, where she was honored as a Hand in Hand volunteer. Perry described Tan as eager to learn everything, from caring for horses to operating tractors and quads. She’s learning to ride horses and assist in riding activities with the kids, and acts as a translator for Asian clients.
“This amazing woman who grew up as a city girl in Singapore has taken very well to farm life,” Perry said. “She stands out as a volunteer both from the amount of time she puts in as well as the impressive rate at which she accumulates new skills.”