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Spring break is coming, flowers are blooming, and March marks Autism Awareness Month. The new season in Arkansas offers opportunities for adventure throughout its hills and woods. But for families with varying abilities, the struggle is to find an experience each person can enjoy. The Blue Zip Line and Farm, located near the city of Mena, seeks to resolve that dilemma for families.
The Blue Zip Line opened in 2018 as an outflow of experiences for the Alston family. In 2008 Shelly moved back to Ink, Arkansas to a plot of land originally established as a homestead by her family in 1897. “We all know that kids love video games, but I wanted to get my son outside doing fun things to help him learn and be outdoors.”
At a young age, Shelly’s son Gregory was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism. Helping him learn, grow, and develop amid diagnosis became her life’s passion. Shelly educated herself and now uses the zip line business as a place to inform educators, parents, physicians and psychologists about developmental opportunities for children on the autism spectrum and adults with neurotypical disorders.
Shelly started using the farmland around her as a classroom with experiences in gardening, tree conservation and building for Gregory. “He is a great reader, but I wanted to get him outdoors. So we worked on planting, looking at different soil types, fertilizers, preparation methods and what they did to help things grow. Of course, on the farm, he also helps take care of animals and cleans and sets up their environments.”
But his most remarkable expansion of abilities and new skills came when they started learning construction.
Gregory started exploring an art medium, working with texture paste as a tactile experience for his sensory needs. He also began using tools and building. Now, his confidence has grown where he can build new troughs for the animals to feed, repair a storm door or complete other handy projects around their house.
Opening The Blue Zip Line and Farm extended what was already happening for their family. Zip Line experiences can serve as an inclusive piece of essential developmental processing for a child on the autism spectrum. Having another person coach a child, from working through their fears and anxiety to stepping off the ledge and riding a line, is symbolic for many of these families. The Blue team is trained in detail-oriented safety measures, explaining the technicalities and mechanics of the sport and specifically working with families who have various needs.
While this is a niche area for this business, they work with families and groups of all abilities. They host family reunions and biker clubs and even offer leadership and team-building experiences for organizational and corporate groups. Each fall, the Mansfield school district brings its seventh and eighth graders. A recent teacher’s group doubled their time on the lines by just laughing with and challenging each other through the course.
The Blue Zip Line and Farm season officially opens on March 17, just before spring break. After that, hours are adjusted through the spring, leading into a five-day-a-week season through Labor Day. While you can book online, they recommend calling ahead to secure your group’s time instead of relying on a walk-up experience in case their reservations are full for the day.
The Blue offers even more fun than flying through the Ouachita Mountains on ropes:
In September, The Blue hosts the Ouachita Bigfoot Festival and Conference, a unique two-day experience with “sasquatchin” training, nightly sighting tours and concerts under the stars. This year the headlining band is “Sons of Bocephus,” a Josie Award-winning band and tribute to Hank Williams, Jr. For the first time, they are adding a bigfoot pet costume contest to the weekend experiences of sharing stories and gathering around a campfire.
In the future, The Blue is expanding its zip lines to new heights and longer runs. And later this spring, they plan to open something perhaps unexpected: a regional pet cemetery. Animals are important to Gregory, and providing opportunities to process grief and offer safe grave spaces is important to Shelly. Working with local veterinary clinics, they learned this is one of the greatest needs in Polk County.
All images and videos used with permission from The Blue: Zipline & Farm.
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