Naperville garden connects students with disabilities to land, life skills
A sprawling squash plant looms large outside the entrance to the Connections program in Naperville Unit District 203, where students with disabilities work to transition from high school into adulthood.
Near the squash are tomatoes, garlic, peas, basil, parsley, oregano, cucumber, lavender, early fall mums and a monarch garden with swamp milkweed.
Crops and herbs and flowers -- sure. But these organic plants are also a job training tool for students who need to gain work and life skills before they turn 22.
Maura Anderson, supervisor of transition services, said the roughly 50 students in the Connections program all have a hand in what's called the EcoConnections Teaching Garden, which was established last spring with the help of local grower Veronica Porter of Naperville as a project of her Veterans Victory Farm.
"Working with the land, growing things is not only calming and beneficial, but it's so rewarding," said Porter, whose business also runs a small organic farm near where Sugar Grove meets North Aurora and Batavia and works to employ veterans and people with "hidden disabilities." "It has a purpose."
In planter beds near the school on Fifth Avenue and in wooden beds atop the parking lot grow the crops that are helping the students learn how to plant, water and weed, harvest, prepare and eat -- engaging in fresh foods for a healthier life.
Fruits of the monster squash -- a variety called Lakota -- were a new thing for Connections students, many of whom Anderson said are picky eaters because of sensory disabilities or a reluctance to experience new textures.
"When you grow something yourself, you're more likely to try it," Anderson said.
During their domestic and family life class time, Connections students help the garden grow, each finding a task suited to his or her own interests and abilities.
Anderson said some are movers, carting bags of soil or fertilizer from place to place in wheelbarrows. Others don't want to get their hands dirty, so they're challenged to put on gloves and work with a trowel. All need help with plant identification -- mainly what's a good plant and what's a pest.
"We have students that love weeding," Anderson said. "To them, everything is a weed."
One of the teaching assistants who's also a landscape architect helped design the garden so it's accessible to students in wheelchairs. That will remain the case even as the garden soon is enclosed to become a greenhouse, sheltered from strong southwest winds and the exhaust of school buses that frequently stop by the site.
The EcoConnections Teaching Garden is one of several "microconnections" businesses the Connections program launched last year to give work experience to students.
There's a small-scale stationery business in which students shred paper used by others in District 203, add dried flowers and press the material into recycled note cards. There's a flower delivery business in which students take blooms deemed past their prime by Trader Joe's to clients each Monday and remove the fading blossoms every Friday. Students also make dog toys and dog treats, and there's soon to be a coffee shop so they can learn skills they'll need to seek an internship or job at Starbucks or Peet's.
As Porter grows her farm business, she's hoping to establish locations in Oswego and Naperville where she could employ more people with disabilities such as the Connections students getting early training in working the land and helping plants grow. And as the EcoConnections garden gets better established, Anderson said it eventually could supply local restaurants with produce and give families a way to visit and give back even once their students are no longer in school.
"We're going to grow a lot of high-quality food here," Porter said. "And it's going to be very beneficial."