Gardening Program Gives Individuals with Disabilities Job Skills & Self-Esteem

June 2, 2021 | Press

Oakdale, NY— Growing things can be a very satisfying experience. There’s a sense of accomplishment to see a plant go from seed to seedling to producing an actual tomato. Family Residences and Essential Enterprises, Inc. (FREE), which supports individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities, mental illness and traumatic brain injury with an array of supports and services, offers a work readiness program that gives individuals hands-on agricultural skills that can prepare them for a variety of employment opportunities. The program, part of FREE’s Program Without Walls, an alternative to center-based day programs, puts individuals in a greenhouse and out in the garden, located at FREE’s Oakdale and Middle Island locations. Gardeners plant and care for vegetables, herbs, and flowers, learning the agricultural business along the way.

Called the FREEdom Gardens, the 32 raised garden beds offer plenty of space to grow a wide selection of organic produce and flowers to enjoy at the dinner table or to adorn the porch with.

“I love it!” says Robert Bohard, who has been in the program for about five months. “It’s hard work, but at the end it feels good to grow something.”

Alicia Munch has a special talent for weeding. In fact, it’s her favorite gardening task to do.

“I like digging in the dirt and I love weeding,” she says.

Christine Kunze, (left) habilitation specialist Wai Ng (center),and Alicia Munch, (right) with Family Residences and Essential Enterprises, Inc. (FREE) gardening and greenhouse program plants some tomatoes that they have grown from seed.

Photo credit: Family Residences and Essential Enterprises, Inc. (FREE)

 

Produce harvested from the garden goes to a range of sources, including FREE’s food delivery service called FREE-POD which supplies fresh vegetables and other essential supplies to the more than 100 residences operated by FREE. This year those individuals working in the garden will also be raising a variety of hot peppers to support a wonderful organization known as SMILE FARMS, a non-profit, which plans to manufacture some tasty hot sauce from the harvest.  SMILE FARMS has been a generous supporter of FREE’s garden and greenhouse opportunities to promote agricultural employment opportunities for citizens with disabilities.

Rob Melnick, Assistant Vice President, Community Services, who oversees the agricultural program, says that many of the individuals have secured  gainful employment at FREE’s  garden or have gone on to get jobs with local nurseries and greenhouse businesses.

“Working in the greenhouse and garden can be a great pathway to gaining employment especially in today’s health conscious environment,” he said. “In addition to providing job readiness, working in the garden helps improve mental health, self-esteem and a great sense of self and team accomplishment.”

Christine Kunze has been in the gardening program for nine years and even has a garden at home.

“I really like to pick the vegetables and then eat them for dinner,” she said.

And isn’t that what it’s all about?

Robert Bohard of Family Residences and Essential Enterprises, Inc. (FREE) gardening and greenhouse program secures a tomato cage.

Photo credit: Family Residences and Essential Enterprises, Inc. (FREE)

 

Family Residences and Essential Enterprises, Inc. (FREE)

Family Residences and Essential Enterprises, Inc. (FREE), founded in 1977, benefits and proudly supports more than 4,000 individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities, mental illness and traumatic brain injury. It is the mission of FREE to help individuals of all abilities realize their full potential. FREE provides a diverse array of supports and services including housing; recovery services; transition to work; employment; day, community and family services; respite; crisis services; education and after school support; specialty health services; and advocacy.

The FREE Network collaborates with a variety of diverse 501(c)(3) nonprofit partners on educational, vocational, rehabilitative and a myriad of other creative initiatives to enhance the local communities and the lives of more than 35,000 people that reside within them. Each of the valued partners of the FREE Network has a unique mission, vision and strategic goals that are aligned in purpose, and embody the spirit of the meaningful work we do every day. For more information, please call 516-870-1614 or visit www.familyres.org.