Programming for all: Toddlers to Seniors and Beginners to Advanced

Willow Run Acres Provides Programming for Children with Autism and Special Needs

T.C Collins of Willow Run Acres in Ypsilanti (and growing to other communities) has been farming since 1973. What started off as a childhood hobby became a lifeline and career after an automobile accident, where he was hit by a drunk driver and spent months in a coma, leaving him with a lifelong traumatic brain injury.

Prior to the accident his love of growing things shone through in his career as a professional chef, where he grew his own veggies, fruit, and herbs. After the accident, during his recovery, farming and gardening became a focal point, and has since revolutionized his life and the lives of those around him.

Willow Run Acres is named for the community of Willow Run in Ypsilanti. 

According to the Willow Run Acres website, “T.C. Collins started gardening  and farming at 2-3 years old with his great great grandparents. As a descendant of former slaves, the legacy of farming and gardening has been preserved in his

Image courtesy of PixaBay

family along with other often lost traditions.”

One of the most treasured memories T. C. has of them is this heritage: “They taught us how to read the back of leaves, read the bark of plants, read sky patterns and constellations, know when to plant and not to plant, how to tell if it was going to frost and when the last frost was over. Society now would call the way they lived off-grid, but for my family and me, it was our culture. Living on the land is forefront for us.”

Willow Run has developed many community programs, such as Watch Me Grow Sensory Garden, which is made for everyone but has a special focus on individuals with sensory perception disorders, disabilities, or children with special needs or autism. 

It saddens T. C. that often young children who are having a difficult time coping with life are ridiculed or demonized, and his desire is to give them gardens and space to learn and feel normal. 

“When you see someone who is having difficulties, give them tools and work with them! Our Sensory Garden focuses on the seven senses. People only think of five, but there’s an additional two because our body posture and how it moves adds into that puzzle of senses. If you have all five senses, but you aren’t accounting for the movement of an arm or hand, and your body positioning, you’re missing an important aspect.”

T.C. gives examples of how encompassing gardening is to the senses: “Hearing birds chirp or seeing a butterfly land on a flower relaxes a child, encourages their mind to wander. Smelling lavender opens up a person’s senses–and we grow seven different varieties of lavender. When you taste and smell that many different types, it refines your senses even more. Hearing the leaves crunch during harvest time is a completely different type of sound than potato chips!”

Watch Me Grow was inspired by his daughter asking for something interesting to bring to her preschool show-and-tell, and he brought potatoes. 

It was such a success that the entire school (360 kids!) came in to learn how to grow potatoes, identify poisonous and non-poisonous ones, and even how potatoes affect heart disease and blood pressure. 

  1. C. says, “Some of the children were afraid of seeing the potato roots, and the opportunity to touch them and see that they weren’t scary really helped open them up and inspire courage.” 

When T. C. asked the children where potatoes came from, they responded, “Potato chip bags! McDonalds!” Seeing both the lack of knowledge around gardening, and the deep interest and benefits to it, kicked off the Watch Me Grow program, which has branched into other school districts and reached thousands of kids. 

  1. C. also reflects on how gardening helps with depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder, so common in MI: “When there’s not enough sunlight, it’s easier to fall into depression. But when I grow different types of daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths during the winter, that opens up my window, gets me into dirt and green things. We’re not solving the winter blues, but gardening can really help! If you grow indoor herbs, you have access to fresh food that you grew.”
Image courtesy of Willow Run Acres website

Willow Run Acres’s Underground Railroad Garden Program connects food to the underground railroad and the first and second migration. 

The 1600s Garden traces food through T. C.’s family history, through slavery, and to the present, and shows how farming and gardening methods have changed throughout generations. 

An upcoming spring program, Autonomous Gardening, is for people with limitations or disabilities: they are taught how to program robots to plant seeds and water plants. Assistance is needed for harvesting, so it’s not fully autonomous, but it’s close!

Other programs involve teaching how to make compost and soil amendments; bulb planting; herb gardens; learn about and grow mushrooms, black walnuts, raspberries, and more. 

T.C. Collins at work at Willow Run Acres. Photo Courtesy of

T.C.’s current goal is to branch out into other communities and continue to impact the local area. In the Willow Run community T. C. is building the first farm park in Ypsilanti, where community members can rent plots for their own farming and gardening. 

This year Willow Run Acres is going to River Rouge, which has a large pollution issue, due to its industrial community, to create an Underground Railroad garden downriver to educate the community on food’s connection to agriculture. 

“We’re hoping to soon be a part of Jackson, Benton Harbor, Battle Creek, and Albion,” says T. C. “Those are the main four cities along the 94 corridor that are the missing links of the original underground railroad, and we wanna connect those four remaining cities. If we get partnerships and community involvement, we can bridge the gaps so they also have access to learning about fresh food, fresh choices, and fresh environment.”

T.C.’s love of fresh growing things has infused his family as well as his community. Each of his children has their own passion: one crossbreeds peppers and develops new strains; one is developing a health and beauty line; one is passionate about composting. The youngest, 6yo, grows her own fruits and veggies to make fruit leather. His 13yo son is developing a seed bank: T. C. says, “There are only thirteen African American seed stores in the United States. Now he can be the fourteenth.”

Being a disabled person, T. C. knows firsthand the therapeutic healing a garden provides. “I wanna help other people,” he says. “I want to put a smile on other people’s faces and make a difference. I love doing this because we all need help, and to help others.”

T.C. encourages anyone interested to volunteer: “Anything a person would like to contribute, we accept everyone with open arms! We do a background check to keep our children and friends safe. Come in with a fresh smile and let’s work together!”

Check out their programs here!

Willow Run Acres 111 South Wallace Boulevard, Ypsilanti 734-717-4849

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