Updated: Jan 5, 2022
Urban Autism Solutions has been awarded a $10,000 Capacity Building Grant from Advocates for Urban Agriculture. The award will enable UAS’ Growing Solutions Farm, a 1.2-acre urban farm on Chicago’s West Side, to hire a second part-time farmer. The additional staff would help maintain the farm’s high productivity while enabling the lead farmer to provide more intensive instruction to the Chicago public high school students with autism and related challenges who work at the farm to gain job skills.
"The Capacity Building Grant is a way for the AUA to directly support growers who embody the values the grant was built on: self-determination, collective growth, accessibility and community engagement," says Bea Fry, development coordinator at the AUA. "Growing Solutions Farm is a wonderful example of how growers enrich our city through land stewardship. We are humbled to have the opportunity to contribute to their growth and are excited for the year ahead!"
Growing Solutions Farm, the signature program of Urban Autism Solutions, hosts students from West Side Chicago public high schools who have autism or related challenges. Students learn about urban agriculture as they work at the farm while gaining transferrable job skills they can use at any job, such as showing up to work on time and in uniform, communicating effectively with coworkers and supervisors, and following directions. Their experience at the farm goes on their resumes.
“This past season it has become clear that we need additional staff to be able to provide more one-on-one instruction to our students while continuing to run our farm, manage our CSA subscription service and weekly farm stands and maintain our commitment to donate at least 20 percent of our crop to local food banks on the West Side,” said Heather M. Tarczan, executive director of Urban Autism Solutions. “It’s a lot for just one full and one part-time staff member, even with a core group of very committed volunteers.”
According to the A.J. Drexel Institute, about half of young adults with autism don’t have a job two years after graduating from high school. “A job comes with benefits other than a paycheck,” Tarczan says.
Work can provide critical structure and serve as a connection to the community. Once students graduate from high school and their school-based services and programming ends, many can become isolated and depressed without that structure that work provides. Autism can make it especially hard for young adults to remain engaged with others after school is out and there is nowhere to go. Working at Growing Solutions Farm gives students a chance to develop and practice skills needed for competitive employment.
For the last few years, the farm has been managed by one full-time and one part-time farmer. “Students at the farm need a lot of repetition and individualized attention,” says Tucker Kelly, lead farmer at Growing Solutions Farm. “Running a productive farm and ensuring that each student gets the help they need to get all they can out of the farm experience is a priority.”
The farm offers a CSA subscription service, manages three farm stands each week, and provides produce to local businesses and wholesalers. About 60 students from West Side high schools work at the farm each year in addition to students who work at the farm through the City of Chicago’s One Summer Chicago jobs program.
Advocates for Urban Agriculture is a coalition of urban farms, community and school gardens, individuals and businesses working to support and expand sustainable agriculture in the Chicago region. Their Capacity Building Grants support the development of a stronger and more equitable local food system in Chicagoland by funding farms that are working to expand and scale up their operations, as well as farms working toward stability and sustainability.