Suffolk farm offers peace for special needs
Published 10:41 pm Thursday, July 5, 2018
Kayden Musicaro, 8, walked into the barn on Lummis Road under the Tuesday afternoon sun. Led by her parents, Joe and Ciera Musicaro, and wearing her bright pink shirt, Kayden’s eyes wandered until she became fixated on Ms. Little, the 14-year-old, 1,800-pound horse in front of her.
Kayden smiled, and the big Ms. Little was as calm as she could be as the smaller girl softly patted her brown head between the ears. The horse’s bowed head was a sign of trust, according to Joe Musicaro, 31.
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“They know who she is, and they know that she needs someone to have her back,” he said about the horses.
Kayden was diagnosed with Pitt-Hopkins syndrome about a year ago, a rare genetic disorder with only about 500 patients reported worldwide, according to the National Institutes of Health. Characteristics include intellectual disability, developmental delay and distinctive facial features.
She is non-verbal with limited motor skills and completely dependent on the assistance of others for everything from showering to eating.
“It really requires a lot of planning and a lot of manpower just to go to the grocery store with a special needs child,” said Joe, who is a petty officer in the U.S. Navy stationed at Norfolk.
When the time came for Musicaro and his family to transfer from Hawaii, their options were limited. Kayden is classified as Category Five in the Exceptional Family Member Program, which requires “special intervention of continuity of medical care” in a location that’s near a military treatment facility, according to the Navy Medicine website.
The Musicaros decide to come to Hampton Roads for an idea that combined their daughter’s needs and Joe’s love of horses. They bought the house on Lummis Road in June and founded Kay’s Acres LLC, which specializes in horseback riding lessons, special events and accommodations for horse owners that need boarding and the families of special needs children.
Joe has been around horses since he was 10 years old living in New York. He kept up with it through college at State University of New York, then volunteered at barns during his tours in the Navy, eight years and counting.
“I’ve been around horses my entire life, but I’ve never owned a barn,” he said under the brim of a white cowboy hat. “It’s a whole new ballgame.”
He said the grass was as tall as they were when they first bought the house. The barn had no roof, the arena fencing was in shambles and the fire pit was full of trash. Long days from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. between the Norfolk shipyard and the farm — along with tremendous help from community businesses and volunteers — cleaned up the land. There’s now a petting zoo and clear trails that loop through the woods from one corner of the farm to the other.
“It was just an idea, an absolute start-up,” he said. “This wasn’t a turnkey by any stretch or measure.”
They now have seven horses on the property, including 20-year-old Dusty, a stubborn horse that’s popular at kids’ birthday parties with his hair colored and a unicorn horn safely fastened to his head. Chickens roam past the enclosures that house Wilma the pig and a goat that only responds to “Goat” or “Goat Goat,” said Ciera Musicaro, 27.
“We tried to name her Dory, but she didn’t come to it,” she said.
But the most popular star in the petting zoo is Jenny, the miniature donkey named after Ciera’s sister Jennifer.
“Growing up, my sister would never let me call her Jenny,” she said with a chuckle, so she immediately knew what to call their first bought animal. “My sister just laughed it off.”
The property is just under 12 acres between the house and Maria’s Guest House next door, which was purchased in November. The 1,500 square foot, three-bedroom residence with a pool is expected to be open for business summer 2019. The guest house is named after Joe’s cousin Maria Smigelski, who died at the age of 32 in October from a brain aneurism.
Musicaro said his cousin came from Florida in August with her daughter Addie, 3, parents Patricia and Bob Delukey, two cats and a dog when they fled Hurricane Irma. He said his cousin was “hell-bent” on buying the place and finding a job in the area before she suddenly passed away.
“Her favorite holiday was Halloween,” he said as he walked along one of the wooded trails. “She was infatuated by the spookiness of it, the skeletons and webs and decorations. She was very eccentric. Every day for her was Halloween.”
Kay’s Acres offers horseback riding lessons and serves as a mobile venue for birthday parties, family barbecues and work functions. They also host special occasions and events throughout the year. Joe said there’s a wedding set for farm this August, and October will feature a blow-out Halloween extravaganza with touches of his cousin.
“It’s going to be big and I’m going to have her in the back of my mind and make her presence known,” he said.
Their biggest goal is to provide a safe retreat for children with special needs to have fun with their families, free from judgment and without the poking and prodding they regularly endure in their psychological and medical treatments, Joe Musicaro said.
“If (a family) is out on vacation enjoying the pool and the child is being themselves — which isn’t always accepted elsewhere — we want to say that it’s OK and it’s not going to bother us,” he said.
With only the sounds of farm animals and bird chirps, parents can simply enjoy the moment while their kids enjoy a powerful, horseback feeling.
“When a child with special needs is on a horse, for some of them it’s the first time in their lives that they’re fully in control,” he said. “When they ask the horse to stop, the horse stops. When they ask the horse to go left, it goes left. It’s so much bigger than them that it can easily say no, but it doesn’t, and they get that sense of pride and satisfaction, that courage and reinforcement.”
All of the work this past year has helped the Musicaros connect with other families with the same passion for helping special needs children, Ciera said, and it’s done wonders for Kayden.
“It has allowed my daughter to have friends and find something that she enjoys, because she’s unable to tell us what it is she likes and we have to figure it out. She enjoys being at the farm around the animals and people,” she said.
The long days continue for the Musicaros as they work to open Maria’s Guest House, build the farm towards self-sustainability and apply for a non-profit status. Joe Musicaro is taking it one day at a time from sunup to sundown.
“It’s just a race against the sun,” he said.
Visit kaysacres.com or call 923-0551 for more information.