This is a post by Julie Tracy, from the Julie+Michael Tracy Family Foundation/Urban Autism Solutions, an organization that is addressing challenges facing young adults with autism in Chicago.
This holiday is turning into a really special season for me. Thankfulness has more meaning this year because, right before my eyes, about two-dozen young adults with autism have made tremendous strides in developing personal and workplace skills that will give them a strong chance to live independently, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
We at the Julie + Michael Tracy Family Foundation/Urban Autism Solutions (JMTF) started Growing Solutions Farm on Chicago’s west side in June to employ the young adults in growing, tending, and harvesting plants, yielding 2,800 pounds of produce that was sold this year. We didn’t know how much the farm would impact the young employees, but we hoped the experience would develop their capabilities in significant ways. We partnered with the National Garden Bureau of Downers Grove, Ill., whose ongoing fundraising campaign continues to provide an important boost in the farm’s size and programming.
Now, I can honestly tell you – the results are amazing!
Consider 21-year-old Dan Casey of Chicago. This year, the young man with autism led a state official on a tour of the farm – an amazing achievement that would have been unthinkable a year ago when Casey had very limited verbal communication skills. But after working at the farm, Casey’s skills and confidence have dramatically improved.
“The difference is remarkable: it’s night and day,” says Dan’s father, Bill.
Jack Moore, a 21-year-old Elmhurst College student from Highland Park, saved up enough of his earnings this season to purchase a laptop computer. His mom, Natalie West, says Growing Solutions Farm “has promoted our sense of excitement about the future,” adding she’s “so proud of Jack’s achievements.”
Maria Winter of Chicago says her 23-year-old son, Scott, who has Asperger’s, has actually begun initiating conversations with others, at work and at home.
“That’s really big growth,” she says, crediting Scott’s work at the farm with instilling self-esteem and confidence that people would actually listen when he spoke. “I just see him blossoming there,” Winter says.
Casey says his son is “well on his way” to making his own journey in the world because of Growing Solutions Farm, and hopes it continues to develop many more young adults through its unique jobs training format.
The business community is noticing the successes, too!
Among those contributing to the farm via the National Garden Bureau campaign, All-America Selections, Bruss Landscaping, Greenheart Farms, Planter’s Palette, Proven Winners, Sakata Ornamentals, Seeds by Design and Terra Organics have provided major financial donations to the program. Generous product donations have come from Bailey Nurseries, Dixondale Farms, Gardener’s Supply, Irish Eyes Garden Seed, Lake Valley Seed and Oldcastle Lawn & Garden. Since the initiative launched in July, nearly $30,000 worth of donations have been generated. NGB raised nearly $15,000 in cash and supplies toward its $50,000 goal. Additionally, William Casey and Caitlin, Inc. donated a hoop house (similar to a greenhouse) valued at $15,000.
NGB Executive Director Diane Blazek told me her organization jumped at the chance to get involved with the farm.
“There are so few resources for young adults with autism,” she says. “The Centers for Disease Control reports autism affects one in 68 people under age 21 in the U.S., so the need is great.”
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