This guest post is by Jan Pilarski, Co-Founder of Green Bridge Growers, an organization that uses innovative methods to grow sustainable, fresh produce all year round. The organization employs individuals on the spectrum and was part of our Small Business Town Hall Series.
Years ago when my son was a preschooler and just diagnosed with autism I was asked to complete a questionnaire about what I envisioned for his future. College? Job? Marriage? I don’t remember how I exactly responded, but I’m sure I optimistically answered “yes” to all three.
Fast-forward to the young adult Chris is today. The journey of the intervening 20 years has had its share of struggle, growth, and change. It seemed we were always focused on Chris completing the next goal or the next grade ahead. Work was something we worried about, but school loomed ahead and that was where we put our energies.
For those of us who have sons or daughters with autism, graduations take on extra meaning. Our children work especially hard to reach those milestones, and much of our own energy and advocacy is reflected in those accomplishments.
Chris’ graduation from college three years ago was such a milestone. He’d pursued his love for French and chemistry at college, and his experience was overwhelmingly positive. Best of all, we were proud that he had connected to a terrific circle of friends and mentors.
Work was another story, and much harder. Chris was hired as an environmental researcher the summer after graduation. But the social challenges he faced because of his autism proved too great for him. Within three months of starting that job, he was fired.
What heartache! When Chris returned home, we learned how widespread joblessness is for people with autism: a staggering 90% of young adults with autism in the US are unemployed. At the same time, we confronted the problem of Chris ageing out of programs since very few are available for adults. What were we to do?
We realized that outside-the-box thinking was needed to jumpstart Chris into the workforce. The more we thought about it, the more it seemed that an entrepreneurial approach was needed to address the huge problem of joblessness experienced by Chris and his peers. To us, such a huge problem required a very different solution. Where traditional employers merely saw the deficits of autism, we saw opportunity to use the strengths of autism as a new way to do business.
What Chris was passionate about was organic farming. He related his love of chemistry to a desire to grow food healthfully and organically. While in college he had even had several internships in the field. Why not be entrepreneurial and structure a business around that passion for farming and the demand for local, fresh food? Those sparks led the two of us to create our social venture, Green Bridge Growers, with the mission of growing both good food and good jobs for those with autism .
About two years worth of research, training, and planning went into our venture before launching. We sought partnerships, involved stakeholders, and visited existing entrepreneurial models like Asperitech and learned a lot. We’re filling a niche in our community by growing produce year-round, primarily using a method called aquaponics where fish and vegetables grow in harmony. Our core workforce is people on the spectrum, and the scheduling, precision, and monitoring needed in aquaponics is a terrific match for their skills.
Our way of addressing the problem of unemployment may not be perfect. Traditional employers need to step up and hire people with autism because of the outstanding assets they bring to their work. But for us, creating Green Bridge Growers was what we needed to do right now to benefit Chris and others in our community.
You can learn more about Green Bridge Growers here.