Open Door#039;s gardening receives green thumbs up

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 14, 2004

Money may not grow on trees, but sometimes opportunity can take root in a greenhouse.

The Gardening and Employment Opportunity Project is a combined effort of the Open Door School, the Lawrence County Board of Mental Retardation/Developmental Disabilities (MRDD) and Tri State Industries.

The project is a $25,000 grant that, among other things, helps provide for the construction of a community greenhouse at Open Door.

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Its two main purposes: To provide on-site training for a smooth school-to-work transition and to create jobs in the agribusiness industry for people with mental retardation or developmental disabilities.

"It's a project we've been working on for the past three years," said Kathy Conner, a vocational teacher at Open Door. "It had started with kids plantingŠwe planted tomatoes and potatoes one year and then it got to the point where we thought we would love to have a greenhouse."

That's where MRDD's Coordinator of Grants and Special projects Sarah Diamond Burroway dug in to help. Burroway applied for the grant in 2003. Since then, the process has bloomed with the erecting of the new greenhouse at the school by SJS Electric Incorporated.

Once completed, the greenhouse will serve as a training ground for both Open Door students and Tri State employees.

"We're really excited about it," Burroway said. "It's a really good project that can help develop marketable job skills for people with disabilities in our county."

Burroway said the area job market for the mentally retarded or developmentally disabled can be bleak. But the project's ultimate goal is to produce at least three full-time jobs at the greenhouse within three years.

"Only 32 percent of people with disabilities that are able to work are actually working," she said. "That compares to unemployment of 19 percent for people without a disability."

Allowing students and Tri State employees to work together will help both to blossom in their common goal.

"Peer mentoring runs both ways," said Jesse Roberts, workshop director at Tri-State. "Our adults get to be around some of the youth who are learning how to do horticulture and the youth will be around our adultsŠand will be mentored by our folks hopefully on how to work and how to dress appropriately and how important work is.

"Having a greenhouse or coming to the workplace is not play, it's true employment," Roberts said. "You may not make lots of money, but you're going to come to work and you're going to learn the value of being productive."

Whether learning to work with plants or to use a cash register, the greenhouse can help people become more independent, Roberts said.

"People with disabilities don't need pity, they need our support."

On Thursday, seven of Conner's Land Lab students were out in force supporting the landscape. For the past two years, all of her 16 students have spent a lot of time outdoors, planting flowers and maintaining the grounds at Open Door.

But it wasn't just work. For 20-year-old Ben Sloan, the process is fun, too.

"I get to help," he said smiling.

His fellow classmate Kimber Brickey explained what they get to do.

"We do gardening and we take walks everywhere," she said.

Students take mini-field trips around the school to look at landscaping at other locations, Conner said. With the knowledge they gain in the Land Lab, her students can then replicate what they see elsewhere.

"Until we take what we learn in the classroom and put that in a setting, we won't know we've been successful or not," said Jeff Saunders, principal of Open Door. "But with the greenhouse and some of the things Ms. Conner's been doing, we definitely can see where those things are working."