Myakka non-profit planning college for those with learning disabilities

nwilliams@bradenton.comAugust 6, 2012 

MYAKKA CITY -- Since 2004, Ave Maria Preparatory in Myakka City has catered to children and young adults with learning disabilities in the Manatee, Sarasota and Venice area.

The non-profit school

works with youths dealing with autism and other learning disabilities, Asperger's Syndrome, Tourette Syndrome, anxiety and bipolar disorders.

Over the years, however, sister Gilchrist Cottrill, the founder and director of Ave Maria, noticed how former students struggled with a transition into adult living.

Seeking another avenue to develop the students' independent skills, Cottrill has engineered a plan to open a two-year agricultural college on the school's property.

Shepherd's Field would be open to all, including persons with mental and emotional disabilities. The school aims to reduce local unemployment rate for people with disabilities by providing skills needed to sustain employment and independent living. Graduating students can earn an associated degree.

The school would offer a work study experience and offer supervised living and a life transition center. Goods made on the property would be sold by the school, allowing students to earn wages through work study. Shepherd's Field would also serve as a project for George Carlo of the Science and Public Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., who has conducted research on ways to reduce symptoms of autism and other emotional and learning disorders.

"Even if they don't go into agriculture for life, they've learned something," she said.

"It can really set them up to achieve," said Gary Adams, who sits on the board of trustees at Ave Maria. "We want to set kids up for success."

One of the supporters of the project is former state senator John McKay of Bradenton. Cottrill helped shape the McKay Scholarship legislation, which allows students with disabilities to be eligible for a scholarship to attend the school of their choice.

"Her Shepherd's Field concept is a natural evolution of her other efforts, so children with disabilities can be academically trained and vocationally trained to be able to access job," McKay said. "I'm going to see if I can help her get it done."

Cottrill is hoping to usher in the first class of students, an estimated group of 50, by January of 2013. Shepherd's Field students will use classrooms in the prep school after those students are dismissed. Living quarters would potentially constructed on the property.

"I don't believe there is a program like this anywhere in the country," McKay said.

Cottrill, who last year was inducted into the Catholic Education Foundation Hall of Fame, has founded and directed two other special learning schools and is an international presenter on learning and behavior disorders. Cottrill also designed and directed public-private partnerships for 32 schools in Florida.

She's confident Shepherd's Field will be a success.

"We've been thinking about this for a long time, and it's time," she said.

The non-profit is planning a silent and live auction to raise $50,000 for Shepherds Field.

The Gate Gala will be held 7-10 p.m. Aug. 31 at the Bella Mia Grill, 102 Riviera Dunes Way, Palmetto. Advanced tickets are available at $1,00 and tickets will also be sold at the door for $125.

For more information on Shepherd's Field or to attend the gala, call 941-322-1601.

Nick Williams, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7049. Twitter: @_1NickWilliams

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