Adam Swanson, his coat zipped up tight from working outside in chilly weather, walks into the gift shop after consolidating tables of mums in the front lawn of the We Grow Dreams Greenhouse and Garden Center in West Chicago. The wind and rain from the night before damaged some of the plants and Adam and his coworkers made sure the center’s outside retail area was ready for the day’s customers.
Swanson, 21, who has Down Syndrome, is one of 30 employees with physical or mental disabilities who works at the business. Now in its fourth year, We Grow Dreams gives them the chance to earn a paycheck while developing work and social skills.
"Once (people with disabilities) go through the school system, and if they finish their academics, after that there are really not a lot of opportunities for them to work in their communities," says Donna Jarmusz, founder of We Grow Dreams.
Jarmusz, whose son Justin has a range of physical and mental disabilities, organized a group of parents who founded We Grow Dreams, Inc. in 2004 as a not-for-profit job training program to address their children’s vocational needs.
Located on five acres, Greenhouse and Garden Center offers more than 45 different jobs ranging from folding boxes to filling pots with soil to office jobs. In preparation for the holidays, special jobs include spray painting noses for decorative reindeer and making wreaths.
"It depends on what an individual’s own interest levels and abilities are. We do a little bit of everything," Jarmusz says.
Today, the 30 participants, called team members, range in age from 14 to 40 and come from all over Chicago and its suburbs. Diagnosed with a variety of learning disabilities, they work about 10 hours a month.
An individual job coach, usually a family member, accompanies each team member and for every hour a team member is in job training, families are required to volunteer an hour in the program.
The result is expansive. We Grow Dreams grows a variety of plants and flowers for retail and wholesale throughout the year. Each holiday season, its two largest greenhouses are filled with nearly 5,000 poinsettias in four different sizes and 32 different varieties—including 10 different shades of red—in full bloom and ready for purchase by Thanksgiving.
"We see enormous improvements in some of these individuals because when they got out of school, they lost social interactions with a lot of their peers, they sat around watching TV, acquired a lot of health problems," Jarmusz says. "It’s not just job training, it gives them social interaction as well. It gets them back into the community."
Some team members are able to graduate from the program and apply their skills to jobs in their own communities, says Laurie Staple, team program manager at We Grow Dreams. She says she remembers one young man who had severe language problems when he started working at We Grow Dreams. After the year-long training, he was able to find a job working with both landscaping and computers.
The state of Illinois ranks poorly nationwide for providing aid to people with disabilities, Jarmusz says, so grassroots organizations really have to act independently.
"Our long-term goal would be to have We Grow Dreams greenhouses everywhere. It’s not just a local issue, it’s a national issue. It’s something that will be in our society for a long time," Jarmusz says.
To get involved in the job training program or to volunteer at We Grow Dreams, contact Staple at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Greenhouse and Garden Center’s hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday- Friday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday. Visit www.wegrowdreams.org for more information.
Vinika Porwal is a student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and an intern at Chicago Parent magazine.