At Westbrook farm, people who have mental disabilities find room to grow


The 160-acre farm is located 20 miles west of Duluth and sits between Floodwood and Cloquet.

The Westbrook program isn’t just a treatment center for those who struggle with mental disabilities; it’s their home.

Westbrook has been Alex O’Connell’s home for the last two years.

O’Connell was diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) as an infant and said it can be difficult to deal with at times.

“The most challenging thing can just be getting up in the morning,” O’Connell said.

Many people don’t understand that individuals with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) suffer from brain damage. It is a spectrum disorder, that means there is a wide range of symptoms and severity, which leads to children and adults with FASD functioning at a multitude of different levels.

A lot of the executive function, decision-making, and abstract thinking that the everyday person takes for granted simply is not there.

O’Connell lives in a foster home setting at Westbrook, where staff is around 24/7.

“The focus of this program is to teach clients independent living skills,” Gigi Toman, Westbrook manager said. “They are also given the opportunity to expand on their interests, whatever they may be.”

Toman said the program itself emphasizes consistency and structure.

In the 1970s, people were getting to move out of state hospitals back into their communities. In Duluth, these weren’t options for people with multiple disabilities, both physical and developmental. Children with disabilities were told they would be institutionalized and sent far away from their families.

In 1978, a group of parents wasn’t going to let that happen. Together, they created the Oregon Creek Home in Duluth, which met the needs of kids with disabilities.

Residential Services Inc. is a non-profit organization with offices across Minnesota that offer support for people who live with a mental illness or disability.

Their Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder program, otherwise known as the Westbrook program, is the first of its kind with support from The Ordean Foundation. The Westbrook program provides a live-in program specific to males with FASD.

Another program located at Westbrook is the equine therapy. It is a non-riding program that incorporates horses with therapy. Westbrook staff members JoEllyn Steele and Pam Hagenah were both trained in what is called an Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Equine Assisted Learning (EAGALA) mode of therapy.

The EAGALA website explains: “The basis of the EAGALA Model is a belief that all clients have the best solution for themselves when given the opportunity to discover them. Rather than instructing or directing solutions, we ask our clients to experiment, problem-solve, take risks, employ creativity, and find their own solutions that work best for them.”

The equine program is located at Westbrook but remains a separate program. It is open to both clients and members of the public.

Not all clients who live on the Westbrook farm have FASD.

Alex O’Connell has a good support system and a bright future ahead of him, but the number of undiagnosed children and adults who are not being treated for FASD is still high.

“One of the funding issues for people with FASD is that they fall through the cracks,” executive director of RSI, Jon Nelson said. “There are many who go undiagnosed, then there are those people who are diagnosed and aren’t receiving services.”

The common lack of impulse control gets FASD clients into trouble. According to Minnesota Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (MOFAS) 6o percent of people with a FASD get into trouble with the law.

Causes of FASD stem from drinking while pregnant, and MOFAS says that no amount is safe.

When O’Connell first arrived 2 years ago at Westbrook he was violent, angry and prone to outbursts.


Hagenah, Westbrook’s equine specialist, has had firsthand experience with O’Connell’s sudden outbursts.

“When he first came, his anger was instant all of the time,” Hagenah said. “One time he wanted to go shopping, but I told him he had to wait. The anxiety of waiting made him blow up. He took a pen and started digging and writing on the wall.”

“At first, I took out my feelings of frustration on all of the staff, but then eventually I got over that,” O’Connell said.

Nelson gave an example of how someone with FASD’s thought process might break down.

“Clearly, I saw you set this phone down, so I know that’s your phone. If you leave the room, I still understand that it is still your phone,” Nelson explained. “If you did that with some of our FASD clients and you left the room, that phone is there for the taking, or you don’t want it anymore.

“It’s as if your brain isn’t quite wired right -- it’s like a computer that has a short in it,” Nelson said. “One day your computer works just fine, and the next day it won’t work quite right.

“Alex has made tremendous progress,” Nelson said. “He’s very engaging and charming.”

Day to day, O’Connell works on basic skills like doing laundry, cleaning up after himself, showering and communicating with the staff.

There is a fully functioning farm at Westbrook that gives O’Connell and other clients the opportunity to work for extra money.

“We do barn chores, take care of the calves, horses and chickens,” O’Connell said. “We don’t have chickens anymore. We need to talk to somebody about getting more chickens. They’re a mess, but I like them.”

O’Connell also works for Floodwood Services and Training year-round.

O’Connell, 20, is originally from the rural area of Williams, Minn. He was in his element when he gave a tour of Westbrook.

He stopped to pet the cows before going into the barn as he finished smoking a cigarette.

“Pam would have my ass if I was smoking in the barn,” O’Connell said with a laugh.


Once O’Connell was in the barn, his connection with the horses was visible.

“He takes pride in being around the animals,” Hagenah said.

“We do EAGALA, which is sort of like horse therapy,” O’Connell said. “I work with Pam and JoEllyn with that. A typical session addresses anger issues and all sorts of stuff.”

JoEllyn Steele is a therapist for the Westbrook program who works closely with equine specialist Hagenah. Each session is specific to the client’s needs.

“The idea with using a hands-on experiential therapy is that they’re doing it,” Steele said.

“They’re not just saying it; they’re practicing and doing it,” she said. “With the horses they get to interact with another living, breathing being that can respond to them.”

Hagenah explained what a session has looked like with O’Connell in the past.

“Alex made three boxes out of logs, then we gave him three different colored ribbons to put in the boxes and on the horses,” Hagenah said.

“Blue was a symbol for OK but getting anxious, red is an outburst and black feels remorse,” she said.

Once O’Connell placed the ribbons where he thought they belonged, he was able to talk through the session in a less intimidating way. He used the horses and hands-on activity as a mode to guide the therapy session.

“He’s grown up so much. He used to run away every day and not want to hear what you have to say,” Hagenah said. “Now when I go to the barn he’ll ask where I’m going, and he’ll be right behind me. I don’t even have to ask him.”

“My attitude has changed quite a lot. It took a couple of months, but it slowly changed,” O’Connell said.

“I like out in the country more,” he said. “A staff member, Terry, and I are going camping tonight down at the cabin.”

He was excited because earlier that week he had gotten the “OK” from his parents to go camping.

“Down at the cabin we – well, we have a big mouse nest, and it’s going to get burnt by tonight,” O’Connell said excitedly.

“Terry and I are really close. We’re great friends,” O’Connell said. “He’s in his 50s. He’s really nice. Once in a while he might yell at me, but he pretty much counts me as his own son.

“The cabin is nice and heated with a nice wood stove. We might have mouse stew night. Num, num, num,” O’Connell said laughing.

O’Connell’s immediate goal is to move over to the apartments across the way. The apartments don’t have 24/7 supervision and require much more independence from the client.

“When I move out to the apartments, they have me work on basic skills like taking my meds on time, making food, budgeting money,” O’Connell said. “I feel confident I can do all of those things.”

As for long-term goals, O’Connell has always had a love for the arts.

“There was one teacher I always liked. It was an art class,” O’Connell recalled. “Art was my favorite subject because you get to work with sandstone, clay -- my favorite medium to work in art are sculptures.

“I would love to go college and take some art classes,” O’Connell said. “I would go to school in Cloquet, so it’s nice and close.”

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