Sara and Glen Collison sat near an oak sapling on their Riverview Drive farm some 30 years ago, praying on how God might want them to use that spot to further their ministry to those who are living with developmental disabilities.
Glen passed away in 2012, but the non-profit organization SHALOM (Self Help Alternative Living Opportunities in Michigan), which they founded in 1990, has grown like the oak tree.
It has branched out from providing housing for 40 adults in need of extra assistance for maintaining their independence to giving them job opportunities. The farm and residences of the Cooper Township-based SHALOM are located in and north of Parchment.
Many of the residents work at the SHALOM Woolery Sheep Barn, 3191 Van Buren Street, which officially opened last October as part of SHALOM’s annual Farm Days event. That event provides an open house for visitors to purchase goods and pet the animals.
“Here, adults living with developmental disabilities are equipped to live fully into their potential in Christ and to bless a broken and lost world,” Collison, 77, wrote about the Woolery Sheep Barn and their prayer for guidance, in the December 2021 edition of SHALOM’s newsletter.
On Dec. 9., Collison sat in her favorite chair in her second-floor apartment that overlooks the Woolery Sheep Barn, the oak tree standing tall next to it, and passed away from natural causes with a Bible in her lap.
The SHALOM community mourned their beloved matriarch, and then returned to the work to carry out her vision.
Four days a week now, nearly three dozen adults living with developmental disabilities along with their coaches, occupational therapy students from Western Michigan University, and volunteers from the community convene at the Woolery Sheep Barn just off Riverview Drive.
They use their talents and creativity to make a wide range of products, from wool hats, scarves, and dryer balls to jewelry, lamps, rugs, bags, and even benches.
On the lower level workers are processing the wool and alpaca fiber, cleaning, drying, and running it through a picker – a machine that opens the wool for a variety of uses.
It then goes upstairs where it is used in the production of wool and fiber products by workers at several tables, looms, and other equipment.
All of the various handmade products are available at the Woolery Sheep Barn from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Thursday. Some products also are on sale from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays at the Connection Depot, a SHALOM-operated thrift store located in its Shepherd’s Barn across Riverview Drive from the Woolery Sheep Barn.
In the late 1980s, the Collisons, who were both originally from Kalamazoo, returned to their hometown after working with adults with disabilities in other parts of Michigan. They bought and moved into a 19th century farmhouse they called the Homestead and welcomed a dozen adults with developmental disabilities to live with them.
It continues to be used for that purpose by the Collisons’ daughter, Julie Stevens, and her husband, Doc, who also are dedicated SHALOM volunteers.
“She grew up in SHALOM and she lives and breathes SHALOM every day,” the organization’s executive director, Lon Bouma, says of Stevens.
Until his death, Glen Collison coordinated farming activities, which included taking care of several animals, with assistance of the residents. When he died, Sara considered selling the farm equipment and animals, Bouma says.
But Keith Lohman, who was executive director at the time, Tom Hermenitt, Chris Rasler, Ryan Smith, and others stepped forward.
“They started looking after the animals and the farm,” says Bouma, who replaced Lohman as executive director last spring when Lohman retired.
Bouma says he never ceases to be amazed at the quality of the products that residents and friends of SHALOM produce.
“They shock me every day,” he says.
On a recent day, 28 out of the 34 adults with developmental disabilities who were at work at the Woolery Sheep Barn were residents of SHALOM. Some residents have jobs offsite, but Glen Collison’s concern was those who were able to work but didn’t have job opportunities, Bouma says.
Collison was always trying to think of ways “to provide meaningful work and meaningful lives to people living with developmental disabilities,” says Bouma, a former pastor, counselor, and hospice chaplain who began volunteering at SHALOM in 2012, the year Collison died.
That was also about the time the idea for the Woolery became a reality. At first it was located in the Shepherd’s Barn.
“It started off with just a few people in the room every day,” Bouma says.
However, a lot of time was spent putting up and taking down equipment so the barn could maintain its other activities. It was clear that the Woolery needed its own space.
Among the animals at the Homestead are nine sheep and four alpacas, not enough to furnish wool and fiber for all the work that goes on at the Woolery Sheep Barn, but their contributions are supplemented by enough wool and fiber donations to keep all the workers’ time occupied.
“We receive a lot of donations of wool and alpaca fiber,” Bouma says.
Lohman, who took on the responsibilities of property and maintenance director at SHALOM after stepping down as executive director, led volunteers in the construction of the Woolery Sheep Barn, for which ground was broken in 2019.
When Covid hit in early 2020, progress actually quickened on construction, Bouma says.
Lohman, who has a background in construction as well as in ministry, served as general contractor and “was able to work on this building outdoors and safely,” the new executive director says. Lohman also had the help of volunteers who weren’t able to go to their regular jobs because of the pandemic.
“This building could not have been completed (in such a short time period) without COVID,” Bouma says.
A Christmas bazaar held in mid-December at the Woolery Sheep Barn was a huge success.
“We were shocked and amazed at how many people came and how much we sold,” Bouma says.
He says plans are being made for a similar event in the spring. SHALOM also sells its products at Parchment’s Kindleberger Summer Festival and at its own Farm Days held each October.
No matter what the activity, Bouma says SHALOM is always cognizant of its founders and what they did to bring the organization to where it is today.
“We wouldn’t do half the stuff we do if it weren’t for Glen’s interest (in farming),” he says, “and Sara’s empowerment.”
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