GREEN BRIDGE GROWERS: AN URBAN FARM WITH A DIFFERENCE!
Three years ago I put on my entrepreneurial hat and went to work. I’m the parent of a young adult son with autism, and Chris’ path to employment was not a smooth one. In fact, it was circuitous, bumpy, and strewn with obstacles. Finding work can be a challenge for most of us, but for people with autism there’s the equivalent of an immovable boulder that prevents them from accessing jobs. A staggering 90% of young adults with autism confront employment because of the social challenges they face in the workplace. We’ve seen that it’s very hard for employers to look past those challenges and realize the amazing skills people with autism could contribute if given a chance.
We confronted this problem firsthand three years ago. For Chris, each stage of his education was something to celebrate. With the help of dedicated professionals in our community and much effort of his own, he grew to learn more of the social skills that ordinary life requires of us. There were still many challenges, yet he continued to learn and grow at his own pace. That’s what any parent would hope for!After high school, Chris attended Hope College, an excellent, nurturing liberal arts college not far from home. He received great support there and got degrees in French and chemistry. When he graduated from college and caught on with an environmental non-profit, it seemed a path toward the world of work had opened for him. But in just three months, he lost his job. Too many employers view people with autism as “square pegs in round holes.” Even the social conventions of a small office were too much for him. Traditional employment seemed a very rocky road.
After a lot of heartache, we realized that a better path for Chris and others with autism might be entrepreneurial. Why not build a business around the amazing skills and assets people with autism have? We wanted to make it a priority to embrace their talents and contribute to the community. Why not a social enterprise?
Chris had loved science as long as we could remember, and when he applied that science it wasn’t in a lab – it was in the soil, growing plants and vegetables. During college he developed an interest in organic growing and began volunteering at local farms. As the daughter of a farming family, I knew farming but had gone on to do other things. What made sense given our interests and backgrounds was to build a community farming venture that had a core workforce of people with autism. We toured urban farming models elsewhere to get inspiration and see them in action. We explored the markets that existed and our potential customer base. There’s a lot of demand for local food in our hometown, and not so many producers. It seemed there was real market opportunity to build the kind of business we envisioned. Along the way, we discovered aquaponics as a method for growing fish and vegetables in tandem, and realized it would both benefit our business and be a great skill-match for people with autism.
Chris and I got to work over the past two years to train and build our social venture, Green Bridge Growers. Because we’re based in South Bend, we’ve had great mentoring and help from the universities here, Notre Dame and the local campus of Indiana University. Our team now includes students and post-grads, engineers and autism specialists. As a client of FISH, a social venture incubator, we did primary marketing, developed our business plan, and were successful in lining up customers among the high-end restaurants and grocers in our community. All that groundwork served us well. This spring, Green Bridge Growers we were thrilled to be awarded the Klau Family Greatest Social Impact Award at Notre Dame’s McCloskey Business Plan Competition.
As our proof of concept, this summer we built a 350- square foot prototype aquaponics greenhouse in collaboration with Hannah and Friends, one of our partner agencies. That greenhouse is now up and running, and participants from Hannah and Friends with a variety of abilities manage the operations. The beautiful vegetables we’re growing are a great testament to aquaponics as a method of year-round production!
Our next stage is to scale to build commercial aquaponic greenhouses. Each 2000 square foot greenhouse we build grows 45,000 pounds of vegetables annually, and creates 5 jobs for people with autism. We’re crowdfunding now on Indiego to build the first two of these greenhouses. Check out our cool video! Give to our campaign and partner with us to share our story. Together we can make a mark on the world for people with autism! To help and to share, we’re up at http://igg.me/at/gbg/x/5391974.
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