Many of us go through life taking much for granted, yet others face challenges the rest of us do not even think about. One such individual was Sandy Mitchell, founder of WindReach Farm, in the southwest corner of Scugog. The man behind the dream was as amazing as the accomplishments he created, now in its 31st year.
Sandy, his real name is Alexander, was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, toward the end of the second World War. His family was in the coal mining business in Scotland and Western Canada, but when the British Government nationalized the industry, Sandy’s father moved to Bermuda to operate the business from there.
Sandy, the youngest of 4 children and the only boy, was born with Cerebral Palsy, a crippling disease, which never held him back from accomplishing what he wanted out of life.
When Sandy was four, he was sent to a special needs school in Philadelphia. For the first three years, he was not allowed to return home. It was only when his parents divorced, eight years later, Sandy was able to leave the school and go back to Edinburgh to live with his mother.
Making up for lost time, his mother hired a private tutor, to keep Sandy as close to her as possible. Sandy would help at his uncle’s farm whenever he could, and developed a keen interest in agriculture.
After Sandy’s father passed away, his stepmother invited him to Bermuda. It was an opportunity to travel and see some of his early roots. Sandy loved the island and wanted to stay. He had a longing to further his formal education, and applied to the University of New York, where he was accepted. He commuted from Bermuda for the five years he went to college.
Sandy, undecided about his future, still had a passion for agriculture. It was due to a conversation with a friend, that he decided to attend McDonald’s Faculty of Agriculture, part of McGill University in Montreal.
Sandy enjoyed the subjects immensely and upon graduating, decided to purchase a 200 acre farm near Arthur, Ontario. After three years, the farm was not turning a profit and Sandy was ready to throw in the towel. He hired the accounting and consulting firm of Deloitte, to help him locate the perfect property where someone with his disability could do the things he enjoyed.
He spent a few years in Bermuda, ‘finding himself’, and suddenly came to the realization, people, like himself with special needs, would enjoy a facility where they could visit and explore a farming way of life.
At the same time, Deloitte had found a property in the southwest corner of Scugog, which was perfect for Sandy, and in 1985 WindReach Farm became his. It took Sandy two years and an extraordinary amount of his personal capital to create the beginning of his vision, but on June 13th, 1989 Sandy invited the first group of special needs individuals to visit his farm.
The farm did well and became a household word in the special needs community. Apple trees were specifically cultivated so the apples grew low to the ground, providing wheelchair access to them. From time to time, wheelchair carriages, drawn by horses, are available for those less fortunate, so they too may experience different activities.
WindReach has been designed to be totally accessible for everyone. Doorways are wide, signage is in brail, and the equestrian centre is designed with harnesses and steps so anyone can experience the joy of riding a horse.
In 1996, Sandy opened WindReach Bermuda, a smaller property than the Port Perry one, but catering to the same needs with the same attention to detail. “Now I can ride my own horses in two countries,” Sandy joked.
Sandy competed in the Paralympics games as an equestrian and participated in Sydney, Australia in 2000, in Athens, Greece in 2004 and in Beijing, China in 2008.
Skiing was one of Sandy’s big past times, and he worked out as much as possible. The rest of his time was spent running the farm with his wife, Sally. Sandy was always involved in the community where he lived. The dedicated work of Sandy Mitchell had not gone unnoticed. In 2002, he was awarded the ‘Member of the British Empire’ by Queen Elizabeth.
“If I could get a thousand people to come up in the course of a year, I would be very happy,” Sandy said. Of course, today the farm boasts 15,000 plus visitors each year, and the number grows continuously.
I was pleased to be asked to handle public relations for the 20th anniversary in 2009, and was able to spend some time with Sandy Mitchell. “We want to have the biggest party Scugog has ever seen,” he said, when I asked him about his objectives for the event. We certainly achieved his goals.
WindReach featured the world’s only hot air, wheelchair accessible balloon, offering rides to anyone wanting to rise high above the property. David Onley, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, at the time, agreed to attend and dedicate the opening of the Foundation Garden. Diane Dupuy and her Famous People Players performed throughout the day, and dozens of artists, both local and international, provided music, dancing and singing.
Sadly, we lost Sandy Mitchell two years ago, but I for one feel privileged to have spent time with a visionary, who has left a legacy for so many individuals to enjoy the fruits of his creation.
Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. Watch his show, ‘Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel’, on Rogers TV, the Standard Website or YouTube.