In Old Brooklyn, outdoor job training center for people with disabilities is sprouting: Margaret Bernstein

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In Old Brooklyn, outdoor job training center for people with disabilities is sprouting: Margaret Bernstein

September 13, 2012 [Margaret Bernstein, The Plain Dealer]

This week, I saw a great idea taking shape from a seed.

I’m not being metaphorical. Seriously, it started with tomato and pepper seedlings.

Rising Harvest Farms, a square block of green space in Cleveland’s Old Brooklyn neighborhood, is a powerhouse of a collaboration that will open up new job training opportunities for people with developmental disabilities when it opens in December.

And yes, it all started two winters ago with green seedlings in plastic containers, coaxed to grow under fluorescent lights at Koinonia Homes Inc.’s adult day support services building in Brooklyn Heights.

Back then, Michael Bartunek’s job at Koinonia was to create programs to help individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities enter the workforce.

Noticing that some workers didn’t like being cooped up in a climate-controlled room doing jobs like document shredding, he decided to introduce a horticulture program. Since it was the dead of winter, he created an indoor garden in a window-filled conference room.

And instantly, he discovered he’d hit a sweet spot. Some workers loved tending the vegetables, and their enthusiasm grew that spring when they transferred the plants outdoors.

One woman who’d been known to flat-out refuse to work when she was indoors did a complete turn-around once went outside. Being in the sunshine, eating lunch in the grass and having freedom to get dirty appealed to her, to the point where she got excited every time she put on her workboots, Bartunek said.

“To me, it cracked the code. Not everybody likes working indoors,” he said. “When people are happy and in an environment they want to be in, they work better.”

From there, Koinonia’s staff dreamed up the innovative concept of an urban garden. It’s an idea that keeps them in step with changing trends affecting persons with disabilities. More and more, such individuals are being moved into the real-world workforce, instead of laboring in “sheltered workshops” where they work in low-pay jobs alongside people like themselves.

Plans for Rising Harvest Farms sprang to life with help from Cuyahoga County Land Bank President Gus Frangos, Cleveland Councilman Kevin Kelly and Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation. A property was located and a low $150-a-month lease negotiated.

The project is expected to be self-sustaining by its third year, said Diane Beastrom, Koinonia’s president and chief executive officer.

On 2.3 acres that once housed Memphis School, there soon will be two greenhouses, a composting area, a poultry enclosure for sales of fresh eggs and a community garden where neighbors can raise their own vegetables.

There will be four-month internships for six people per cycle, where hands-on job training will be supplemented with classroom training and job placement.

It’ll be a place where Old Brooklyn neighbors can walk to purchase fresh produce.

Robyn Sandys, executive director of Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation, said it’s great to see something productive happening on a plot that’s been vacant for at least five years. “It’s going to be a strong asset to the community,” she said.

As an organization, Koinonia itself has grown and changed with the times. Originally a residence for women with disabilities, it began offering day programming in 2006, and has now branched out into employment services.

Koinonia’s vocational career services staff readies individuals with disabilities for part-time work, and provides a coach to supervise and support them on the job. They also educate employers on why they should hire people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and work to dispel stereotypes.

“People want jobs. They want to be making a contribution in the community,” Beastrom said. “People with disabilities want the same kind of life you and I have. Money adds meaning and value to people’s lives, absolutely,” she added.

One more thing about Rising Harvest Farm — the fresh produce grown there will go directly to the 21 licensed group homes that Koinonia operates, so that residents can enjoy the locally grown organic veggies at mealtime.

Talk about a multipurpose center. This effort that deserves applause, for revitalizing not just a community, but lives as well.