Lincoln Intermediate Unit personal assistant Kathy Anderson reacts after a fish she was handling wiggled from her grip while she helped stock the new koi
Lincoln Intermediate Unit personal assistant Kathy Anderson reacts after a fish she was handling wiggled from her grip while she helped stock the new koi pond at Leg Up Farm in Mount Wolf. She was helped by Splash Supply Co. owner Mark Willoughby, whose company built the pond. (Bill Kalina photo)

The rain created a dreary backdrop, but it couldn't rinse joy from the faces of those who gathered Tuesday Morning to see Leg Up Farm's new koi pond.

"We figure, if the fish can get wet, so can we," said Tom O'Connor, development director at the Mount Wolf-based farm, which operates as an outpatient therapy center for children with special needs.

Some of those children smiled and giggled as they helped release the slippery koi into cold water.

"That joy is what it's all about," said CEO Louie Castriota Jr., wiping tears from his eyes. "We've created another space the kids can enjoy and find happiness."

In 2010, Castriota opened Leg Up Farm, which has served more than 700 children and manages more than 1,100 therapy appointments every month.

Leg Up Farm client Josh Merkel, 15, of Dover, tosses a fish into the new pond, which is handicapped accessible.
Leg Up Farm client Josh Merkel, 15, of Dover, tosses a fish into the new pond, which is handicapped accessible. (Bill Kalina photo)

Holding 450,000 gallons of water and spanning 1/3 of an acre, the new addition is the largest therapeutic koi pond in the country, he said.

Professional landscaping, a steady waterfall, and the fluttering of butterflies and dragonflies offer both a peaceful refuge for families who attend the center and a teaching tool in Leg Up Farm's therapy programs.

The handicapped-accessible pond will help physical therapists teach patients how to navigate different surfaces, such as walking on rocks.

Patients will also feed the koi, helping them master the pincer grip.

Speech therapists will be able to use the pond to motivate patients to pronounce a new word and make a new sound.

Frogs have already made their way to the new space, and more than 100 koi were released into the pond Tuesday by patients and their siblings.

"This place is really about the whole family," Castriota said.

Siblings of children with special needs rarely have anywhere to go or anything to do during therapy appointments, so Leg Up Farm creates spaces the entire family can enjoy, he said.

The farm's offerings are largely inspired by his teenage daughter Brooke, who has mitochondrial disease - a metabolic disorder that causes cognitive and motor function delays.

Castriota and his wife, Laurie, have three other children, who don't need specialized care, and know first-hand what it's like to manage multiple therapy appointments with multiple children.

"That's why we really want to enhance the life of the whole family," he said.

To help achieve that, the center is in the middle of a $1.5 million construction project that is adding therapy gardens throughout the 18-acre property, including a tranquility garden, sensory garden, the koi pond, organic garden, music garden and outdoor classrooms.

Leg Up Farm's next project is a $3.5 million development that will add classroom space, a therapy pool, a gym, and training areas for staff and medical providers, he said.

- Reach Candy Woodall at cwoodall@yorkdispatch.com.