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June 21, 2007   Email to Friend 

FREEDOM FOR MEGAN: Tomatoes May Bring Independence For Disabled Teen
By Darryal Ray

The Harman family, clockwise from top left, are: Ben, 15; Chris and Rita; Megan, 16; twins Kyle and Kelly, 4; and Kim, 7. Corkie, Megan's constant companion dog, stays near, awaiting any commands from Megan.
It's a big word, one that wraps itself around Megan Harman's tiny 16-year-old frame and holds her captive.

Arthrogryposis, a congenital disorder in which an excess of connective tissue wraps itself around the joints and binds her as surely as if she were bound by ropes or shackled by chains, has imprisoned her since birth.

It has bent and twisted her body, curved her spine, restricted her lung capacity and rendered her almost powerless to move, but not powerless to dream of freedom. Freedom to go to the movie, to the mall with friends, to simply get away.

"I just want to get away from this house," she said recently, a hint of exasperation in her voice as the summer raced toward yet another Independence Day without her own independence in sight.

Oddly enough, that freedom may just grow on the vines inside the Harman Family Farm's greenhouse near Opelika, where Megan's dad, Chris Harman, hopes to grow and sell enough tomatoes to buy his daughter's freedom.

But the cost of freedom is high. In Megan's case, it'll run about $113,000. That's the price of the new $21,000 Honda Element van she's picked out, plus another $92,000 to convert and equip it with the necessary voice recognition and joystick steering, a hydraulic lift, ramps and wide power doors on the side of the vehicle.

"When we found out the vehicle was going to cost so much, Chris looked at me, and I looked at him," said Megan's mother, Rita. "And I said to Chris, 'Which one of us is going to get a part-time job?' And he said, 'We both need one.'"

But with Rita working at East Alabama Medical Center, Chris working as an inspector with the Lee County Health Department and four other children at home -- 15-year-old Ben, 7-year-old Kim, and 4-year-old twins Kyle and Kelly -- the Harmans didn't want to be away from their family any more than necessary.

That's when Chris decided the hydroponic tomatoes he was growing in the backyard would fare much better inside a greenhouse. So, he did some research, talking with Extension agents and even stopping by Prather Slay's Chambers County greenhouse for a tour and advice from the long-time member of the state horticulture committee.

"We started talking about it, prayed about it, and finally decided this would be a good second job for our family," said Chris. "We felt like we could both work and stay at home with the kids, and when they got bigger they could all help."

"We stayed on our knees a lot," said Rita.

Then, with help from Rita's parents, they took a leap of faith, building a $31,000, 30-by-96-foot greenhouse, which he outfitted with the necessary equipment and supplies and then added a small outbuilding nearby, from which they sell the tomatoes. Chris estimates his total investment is about $50,000.

Now, signs declaring "Vine Ripened Tomatoes" all along Lee County Roads 146 and 166 point the way to their greenhouse. "We just had faith that it would work for us, and it has," said Chris. "Folks have commented how surprised they are with it, how motivated they are with it."

Back in mid-May the Harmans were producing about 500 to 600 pounds of tomatoes per week, selling most of them and taking the culls to an Opelika food bank.

Of course, the Harmans must sell 45,200 pounds (or a little more than 22 and a half tons) of tomatoes at $2.50 per pound -- if they have to pick up the entire $113,000 tab without any financial aid from the Alabama's Department of Rehabilitation Services. Megan has already earned her driver's license by taking a test in a specially equipped van owned by the state, but her application for assistance on the $92,000 in van improvements is pending.

At the very least, the Harmans have to sell enough tomatoes -- 8,400 pounds -- to purchase the Honda Element van (which is roomy enough for Corkie, her ever-present 8-year-old specially trained black Labrador companion dog) without any modifications.

"We will have to sell much more than that to buy that van because we are having to run the greenhouse out of that money as well as save for the Element," Chris said, noting that the winter heating bill alone for the greenhouse runs about $7,900.

There are no shortcuts, either, like settling for a used van because the state rehabilitation services requires a new vehicle for such a hefty investment. "We're in this for the long haul," said Chris. "Whether the state helps with the whole thing or some of it, we've still got to purchase the new Honda. Plus, who knows what insurance will cost on insuring a van like that with a 16-year-old driver! So we're looking for her to drive it for some time. She needs some independence."

Neither can the family use their 5-year-old, 15-passenger van as a trade-in. It may have 92,000 miles on it, but it's the only way the family of seven can travel together. And since the van lacks a lift and the necessary steering accommodations, Megan can't drive it. Her wheelchair alone weighs more than 250 pounds.

Even so, the Harmans hope to net about $8,000 by the time they close the greenhouse July Fourth. It's not feasible to grow greenhouse tomatoes during the summer -- besides, they said, they need a break before starting again in the late fall.

Inside the sales building, a picture of the fully equipped van is posted along with a typewritten letter from Megan, thanking their customers and noting that their purchase will help toward the van.

"I thought (Dad's idea of) growing the tomatoes was an excellent idea," said Megan, who has helped keep the books on the tomato sales. "I don't like to ask people just to donate money for me. This is a way to raise money without having to ask for it. It is a big witness of faith. I can't begin to describe how much God has blessed us with these tomatoes."

Likewise, her parents are reluctant to ask for help as well. "We're not asking for donations. We prefer they buy tomatoes," said Chris. "If somebody comes in and leaves a donation, we won't turn it down."

"If God leads someone to do that, we're not going to refuse it," said Rita.

But it's all for Megan.

"We want her to have as normal as a normal life can be," said Rita. "We've never treated her any different than we would a normal child, and people who know her, know that. She's happy, she's outgoing. There's nothing 'little ol' pitiful me' about her. When Megan goes somewhere, she's let go and it's always been that way."

Chris recalled how Megan's outlook changed when she moved from a manual wheelchair into her first electric wheelchair in the fifth grade.

"The change in her was 100 percent," he said. "She was a different child. We can see the same thing happening with this van. Obviously, we're scared to death like all parents who go through a 16-year-old driving, but ... if freedom means 'the state of being free' or the 'ability to move or act freely,' this is exactly what Megan wants.

"Megan wants to be able to come home from school, and go to a job like most teenagers," he said. "Megan wants to go to the movies on a Friday night. Megan wants to go to the mall to meet her friends. Currently, Megan stays home. So freedom for her would be truly to be set free."

Harman Family Farm is at 3068 Lee Road 166, Opelika, AL 36804. For more information about Harman Family Farm's hydroponic tomatoes, call (334) 703-0328 or email Chris Harman at chrisharman@bellsouth.net.



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