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Building Jake’s Farm: Janssen family creates a legacy for their son

by BERL TISKUS
Reporter | April 11, 2024 12:00 AM

Mark your calendar for a three-day building blitz Aug. 9-11, when the community will come together to build Jake’s Farm in the Dell in Ronan.

“We’ll have a big tent set up from St-Cha-Ro,” Rich Janssen said. “The Ronan Women’s Club will be serving food the whole time people are working. It’s gonna be amazing.” 

Organizers chose the weekend after Pioneer Days so it wouldn’t conflict with the Ronan rodeo, parade and other festivities. Janssen said he and project director Kole Cordier plan to have the earthwork done and the concrete poured and “be ready to go.” They’d like to get the shell put up and the roof on, and that’s a lot to get done in three days. 

Lowell Bartels, CEO and co-founder of Farm in the Dell, said they’re asking carpenters and contractors to take the weekend off and come help.

The building will house four people, with a huge common room and kitchen in the middle, and the bedrooms on each corner. People with autism like their space, according to Janssen.

Poignantly, groundbreaking for Jake’s Farm in the Dell will come more than a year after Jake Janssen passed away April 5, 2023, at age 28. Jake, an autistic man, is Rich and Julie Janssen’s son and Jenna Janssen’s brother. 

Rich explained that his son had seizures, “probably 800 in his life, and his body just said, ‘I’m done with it.’”

But Jake is the reason Jake’s Farm in the Dell will become a reality. 

The project began in 2018 “when the state of Montana said we were being proactive in a reactive system,” Rich recalled. “We were trying to get Jake placed in a group home and the state said no.”

“We were devastated,” Rich continued. “They felt he was just fine with us; he had lived with us his whole life. Jake was about 21, and the state chose not to pay for it.” 

Rich and Julie worried about care for Jake when they couldn’t care for him or passed away. They started a Proactive Living Facility fund “to find a place for our son, but also for other Montana men and women who were autistic or were people with disabilities,” Rich said. 

Many of these people are housed out-of-state at a cost of $250,000 a year to the state of Montana, according to Janssen. 

The Farm in the Dell

After some research, Rich and Julie came across Farm in the Dell, and visited the organization’s operation in the Kalispell area.

They liked what they saw. “Of course, we fell in love with the residents,” Rich said chuckling.

“Farm in the Dell is a seasoned, stable, known brand that provides housing for people with special needs and   developmental disabilities,” Janssen said. The company has six farms across the state of Montana, and Jake’s Farm is going to be the seventh.

Lowell Bartels and his wife, Susan, co-founded Farm in the Dell in the 1980s when they saw a need to develop housing for children and adults with autism and with disabilities.

They built the prototype in Somers “to see if it could work,” Bartels said.

It did, and other groups approached the Bartels and asked for similar facilities in their communities. Now, Farm in the Dell has farms all over the United States, some in Canada and Mexico, and one farm in Kyrgyzstan. 

The Bartels’ goal is to establish farms where people with autism and people with disabilities live, work, give back to the community and become part of the community, while raising crops and animals.

A push is made to get people with autism and with disabilities through high school, Bartels explained.

“But then we don’t teach them a trade or how to care for themselves,” he added. “They need a place to live and work.” 

According to Bartels, Montana has more than 3,000 folks who need placement, and they need to be helped so they don’t become homeless, incarcerated, or end up in a nursing home, where they don’t belong.

He also noted some research done by the University of Kansas. People with disabilities and autism work very well with animals and the land; they live together well.

“What we (Farm in the Dell) do is wait for families or communities to approach us,” Bartels said. “We help you with the building and the grant and make it happen for each community.” 

The farm must be community-based, he reiterated.   

Other goals are that each farm be self-sufficient within the community, stand on its own, and not have a mortgage. 

Bartels said care at the Kalispell Farm is $1,500 per month per person. Since it costs more to run a farm and a home, the farms fundraise throughout the year.

Before they build, everything should be ready to go, as it is for Jake’s Farm; the land was donated, and the Janssens and other supporters raised $500,000. They’re now waiting for a construction grant to come through from the state, and developing the board of directors. 

Rich goes to Helena

“Fast forward to last year,” Janssen said. He contacted Shane Morigeau, a representative of Senate District 48 in Missoula and an old friend of Rich’s. 

Morigeau introduced a bill to provide funding for construction of autism facilities in Montana so people don’t have to leave the state, and the money stays at home. The bill was killed two or three times, Janssen said, even though the state had a $1.3 billion surplus.

He traveled to Helena to testify several times, encouraging legislators to support a solution that would provide kids like Jake with a place to go after high school. He was recognized as an autism advocate and interviewed on TV as he continued his fight for those who can’t fight for themselves. 

He especially appreciates the support of Sen. Mike Cuffe of Eureka, who finally got House Bill 952 passed, allocating $400,000 in grant funding to projects like Jake’s Farm. 

Currently Jake’s Farm in the Dell has about $500,000 in the bank, thanks to community members, friends, and relatives, and is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. They’re waiting to hear whether they’ve been awarded one of the construction grants authorized by HB 952.

To add to the coffers, Janssen said Jake’s Farm sold some of its land to the Ronan School District to build housing for teachers. 

“It’s a win/win,” he said. 

Cordier, project director for Jake’s Farm, is reaching out to local contractors who want to help, encouraging them to donate or offer discounted materials or time. 

Although Janssen plans to remain on the board of directors, he says the goal is to ultimately turn Jake’s Farm fully over to Farm in the Dell. 

“We’ll have a local board of directors. Our plan is to work closely with the Ronan High School FFA and FHA programs and be very close with the local farm and ag stores like Cenex and Westland Seed – just anything ag-related.”

“It’s gonna be a community endeavor,” Janssen vowed. To lend a hand, call 406-437-1972, 406-871-6584 or email info@proactivelivingfacility.org.

Life without Jake

“Jake’s been gone almost a year, and Julie and I have finally now gotten rested, and we’re learning how to become a couple again,” Janssen says quietly. “But there’s a void in our hearts and in our life still.”

He candidly added, “The thing that people don’t realize is the trauma and the stress, the issues our family dealt with on a daily basis. They didn’t see it.” 

Janssen doesn’t mention specifics, but he testified in Helena about replacing many doors and many toilets, fixing walls, and spending thousands of dollars to keep their home safe, and their lives calm.

The numbers of people with autism are growing every year. Janssen says when his son was diagnosed with autism in 1998, it affected one child in 10,000. Now the numbers are one in 36. While most are boys, girls can also be severely affected. 

Jake’s legacy will live on as Jake’s Farm in the Dell offers community and support to kids and families dealing with autism.  

“I miss him dearly, every day. I’ve got his picture and his thumbprint,” Janssen said, gesturing to his necklace. 

Tattooed on his arms is Jake’s handwritten message: “Love, Jake” on one, and “I did well Dad” on the other. 


    Jake Jannsen's childhood handprints and a loving note are memories Rich Jannsen, Jake's dad, keeps on his arm. (Berl Tiskus/Leader)