Feb 25, 2013 0 Share

Lettuce Work: Sowing Seeds and Harvesting Hope

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Lettuce Work, a nonprofit vocational program and service provider for young adults on the autism spectrum near New Albany, Ohio, is growing something new within the autism community. As is the case with many nonprofits that serve individuals with autism, the organization began with the efforts of dedicated parents. However, what makes Lettuce Work special is the way in which essential resources—trained teachers, a business plan, and a supportive local economy—converged. Yet these things didn’t come together by chance; hard work came first. 

The story starts with Doug and Julie Sharp and their two young sons. Julie Sharp is a teacher at Oakstone Academy, a school in Westerville, Ohio that welcomes students with ASD. She has taught there for 10 years. Oakstone is unusual in that approximately 50 percent of its students have autism spectrum diagnoses, and the other 50 percent do not. Both of the Sharp’s sons attend Oakstone; their 12-year-old son is on the autism spectrum. Doug Sharp served on the Oakstone school board for six years, and was board president as well.

But how did involvement at Oakstone lead to Lettuce Work? Doug Sharp recalls, “We saw that some individuals were able to go on to college, yet some just were not ready for college after Oakstone. Either the maturity level is not there, or social and communication skills are not ready ….” The environment at Oakstone Academy is inclusive and supportive; teachers are trained to work with individuals on the autism spectrum. For many students, a transition directly from Oakstone Academy to a “typical” university can be difficult.

Lisa Wenzke, a Lettuce Work board member, parent of an individual on the spectrum and math teacher at Oakstone Academy, sees the same issue. She says, “When you’re focused around kids with autism, you’re constantly thinking ahead. You’re thinking, ‘What are we going to do after school’s done?’”

Start-Up and Vocational Challenges

What about students who are ready for employment after high school? Lettuce Work seeks to “fill in the gap” for them as well. As Doug Sharp notes, “More individuals are eligible for funding each year; there’s a need for vocational training and a safe harbor for [individuals] who might move on to college.” Wenzke agrees: “Even in this age of non-discrimination, there are many things that those with autism aren’t invited to do.”

Lettuce Work is designed specifically for individuals with autism to be employees and the organization measures success based on each person. Doug Sharp says, “Everyone [on the spectrum] is unique, and progress can be slow. We often measure in years, not days or weeks. And there are not a lot of programs out there built for that kind of time frame.”

Lettuce Work is certified to offer adult vocational rehabilitation, adult day habilitation, transportation services, and community employment. It has begun by working with the vocational education program at Oakstone Academy, enlisting students to help run the business. As of now, Oakstone students are awaiting their chance to contribute “finish work” to the greenhouses. Winter weather has delayed construction timetables; framing, HVAC, and electrical work are underway on both main building and greenhouse structures. “As soon as we get heat into the greenhouse,” laughs Doug Sharp, “[students] are coming in to help finish the construction, and then they’ll start working on the growing site.”

In preparation, Oakstone students are taking plumbing classes, and studying heating and cooling systems. A small group of students is scheduled to work at the greenhouse three days a week for several hours each day, along with Lettuce Work’s full-time staff members. Since program participation will carry school credit for these students, they will not receive wages. However, the organization plans to hire individuals as they graduate from Oakstone and other local high schools. The estimated potential wage will begin at the Ohio state minimum of $7.85 per hour. Notably, Lettuce Work has chosen not to file with the state of Ohio to pay less than minimum wage (or pay associates based on a "piece rate," a common practice for supported employment centers). As Doug Sharp says, “Our expectation is we will pay minimum wage at the beginning, with increases based on performance.”

The Lettuce Work Model

Lettuce Work’s primary focus is on helping autistic individuals develop workplace skills. To this end, Doug Sharp says, “The idea is to have them involved in every type of activity within the business, from sales delivery to customers to greenhouse work, all based on their abilities.” And now, with greenhouse construction nearly complete, they’ll have an opportunity to do so. But how, exactly, will the organization support itself? Is there a market for their product? Are they prepared for the challenges associated with training adults on the spectrum?

Doug Sharp answers these questions with precision. As the driving force behind Lettuce Work, he’s well-versed in all aspects of its business model. But this didn’t happen overnight. He recalls, “It took a long time to get to this point [with our business model]. We had to do a lot of market research locally. We were worried about ... what if we start growing and nobody buys?” To allay this fear, Doug Sharp and his team approached a group of independent restaurants who have banded together as Dine Originals. Dine Originals supports locally-grown produce, and when Lettuce Work asked to partner with local chefs to create a custom salad blend, Dine Originals said yes. As such, Lettuce Work has a built-in local market for its greens. (The retail price of the lettuce blend will vary based on wholesale prices for pre-packaged salad.)

Doug Sharp observes, “We have a wholesale market that way. With grocery stores, you’re up against big vendors. If we stay in a specialty niche, we get a little better margin, and that’s important. Yes, we’re running a social agency; yes, we’re a state vocational rehabilitation provider, but we’re also running a business.” Lettuce Work also receives funding from numerous private and corporate donors, and it participates in the Kroger Community Rewards program. The organization thus pulls together a number of different potential revenue sources, including donations, Medicaid, corporate partnerships and sales. However, Lettuce Work is not expecting any state funding initially. The business income for the first year is projected to be $250,000, with annual donations estimated at $50,000, giving the organization an estimated total revenue of $300,000. If these predictions are accurate, Lettuce Work will have resources to expand in addition to covering operating costs. “Our goal is to keep building more greenhouses,” Doug Sharp notes.

Hydroponic Gardening

Lettuce Work has sought to turn over a new leaf when it comes to work environment, as most jobs available to adults on the autism spectrum are located in warehouse settings. As Doug Sharp says, “There aren’t a lot of [employment] choices, so we said, let’s try to figure out if we could do something more agricultural.” Though Lettuce Work seeks to be self-supporting, the organization is partnering with the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities for both potential funding and program input. In fact, Ohio DDD gave the Sharps the idea for hydroponic gardening. Doug Sharp recounts, “We talked to Ohio state [DDD], and we told them about the group of people we wanted to serve, with their wide variety of skill sets, and they suggested hydroponics.”

Why hydroponics? First, Doug Sharp notes that hydroponic gardening systems require knowledge of math, science, chemistry, and computers. Hydroponics involves monitoring the soils’ growth environment, adding fertilizer solution through troughs. To make matters more complex, the amount of fertilizer needed for different varieties of greens changes as the plants move through their life cycles. Employees of Lettuce Work will continue to develop math and science skills as they calculate what amount of solution needs to be administered to which plants, and when. But there are also a variety of labor-intensive tasks in the model, allowing for a diversity of ability levels. Furthermore, the organization selected lettuce as their crop because, as Doug Sharp observes, there is, “ … a constant demand for it, and a lot of routine within the growing process. We plan to produce 5,000 heads [of lettuce] per week, so there will be stuff to do every day.”

Challenges to Come

The Lettuce Work model isn’t without its challenges, though. The biggest hurdle thus far has been start-up funding. As Doug Sharp recalls, “Initially, we spent a lot of time talking to large companies. And we saw a theme; people said, ‘We’d like to see [the program] in action before we jump in and invest.’” Doug Sharp recites the questions he received: “‘How will people interact? Do you have marketing and sales nailed down?’ People want to see those addressed before they make an investment.”

Given this, the Sharps made the decision to fund a sizable portion of Lettuce Work’s initial operations themselves. To date, they (along with other supportive donors) have invested over $500,000 in capital development. This includes the land, buildings, excavation, labor, hydroponic equipment, and delivery truck needed for Lettuce Work to operate. Doug Sharp says, “We want to be able to have this as a prototype, to say, here’s the model, and it works. That way, we can get more [donors] engaged.” Lettuce Work has received a few grants, but most of the start-up funding has come from private donations like the Sharp’s. (Going forward, the organization hopes to fall back on its state funding as a Medicaid provider to defray operating costs, as needed.) Furthermore, schools and businesses have been generous, helping to defray the program's construction and startup costs. Specifically, Doug Sharp mentions donations from the American School of Technology (which donated HVAC installation), Carrier (furnace and air conditioning equipment), Home Depot and CropKing (materials and employee volunteer time). These contributions have already saved Lettuce Work thousands of dollars.

When it comes to job supports for employees, Lettuce Work is banking on self-management skills students have learned at Oakstone Academy. As Doug Sharp notes, “The teachers that we’re working with are very familiar with how to manage behaviors. The challenge will be to get [individuals on the spectrum] to do that themselves, after teachers are gone. That’s the struggle.” That transition could be tricky; both Doug Sharp and Wenzke say that Lettuce Work will need to focus on teaching employees on the spectrum to manage behaviors on their own. Wenzke says, “There will be this huge learning curve. Fortunately, we all have experience with students with autism.” Even so, Doug Sharp doesn’t mince words: “It’s going to be tough.”

Resume Building

Nevertheless, Lettuce Work’s staff believes that the difficulties will be worth it in the end. The Sharps founded Lettuce Work hoping that the program will help young adults learn how to move into a work environment. “The goal is that the individuals we work with move on to something bigger and better ... but we also understand that some may be working for us for a long time,” says Doug Sharp. So, our goal is to have 25 percent [of Lettuce Work program attendees] move on every year.” Put more succinctly: “We’re just a resume builder.” 

But being a “resume builder” doesn’t mean moving people through the program at breakneck speed. Lettuce Work emphasizes progress at an individual’s pace; the organization’s goal to have 25 percent of participants move on to new employment each year also means that 75 percent of adults will likely remain in the program. And Lettuce Work is excited about that 75 percent who remain each year; after all, many of those individuals on the spectrum would be out of a job otherwise. As Wenzke states, “Yes, it costs money to do this, but people don’t realize: an unemployed adult costs money, too.”

In the end, perhaps there is no better metaphor for Lettuce Work than a community service project that Wenzke herself set up. “I was educating [students] on the lack of availability of jobs for people with autism,” she says. “I had them do research and write essays on someone they know, and what job placements they’ve found. And as the [Lettuce Work] greenhouses were being built, we gave those same students seedlings. I told them, ‘Grow them and care for them. You may start small, but you can grow something great.’”