While visiting farmers markets is a favorite seasonal pastime, one area high school is making the experience extra special for local patrons and young adults alike.
As a part of Lyons Township High School’s Transition House — a district facility and program for individuals ages 18-22 with special needs — students are learning valuable life skills all while growing and harvesting an array of fruits and vegetables.
From originally planting just tomatoes in two small beds when it started in the spring of 2011, the Transition House, located at 1205 W. Cossitt Ave. in LaGrange, now features six raised vegetable beds where all summer and fall, students have grown and harvested crops including Tuscan kale, corn, pumpkins, spaghetti squash, tomatoes, herbs and wildflowers. Crops are sold every Thursday at the LaGrange Farmers Market.
Joseph Duffy, a transition special education teacher at LTHS for the past eight years, started the garden with the goal of allowing the young adults to make local connections and get them familiar with local job opportunities.
“Our main objective is to expose them to social opportunities, vocational opportunities, independent living [and] give them the skills they’ll need as young adults,” he said. “The idea is that when they leave here, they have life skills, work skills and practical things they might need.”
In addition to selling their goods to the public, the gardeners have also partnered with many area restaurants and stores including The Fruit Store, Nickson’s Eatery, Palmer Place and Francesca’s in LaGrange in selling more than $2,000 in heirloom tomatoes to use in their kitchens.
“A lot of places pride themselves on locally grown foods, but locally grown might be from Michigan or two hours away from Illinois,” Duffy said. “So, we really like to say we’re more neighborhood grown. It’s truly a local collaboration.”
In the five years the garden has been around, Duffy says the students have really gotten a good amount of work experience in ways they hadn’t before.
“The garden really helps us meet a lot of the students’ goals,” Duffy said. “It helps the students learn about the production side of things, learn about working in sales at the farmers market [and] it helps them with communications and gives them job experience.”
Duffy said six students from Brookfield are involved in the transition program, including Donavyn Coronado, who is participating in the garden for the first time.
Coronado says that during the last few months of work, his favorite thing has been being introduced to so many new ideas.
“I feel like I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “There’s a lot of things when working at the garden I learned about, like planting fruits [and] vegetables, how to maintain them, how to maintain the soil, how to tell if they’re ripe [and] how to tell if they’re rotten.”
All in all, Duffy says the garden has been an important part of the transition program because it gives the students a sense of confidence and pride.
“I think this is a population of people who are undervalued in the workforce and by society in general, so we kind of help expose their assets and show them they are a valuable commodity and workforce by interacting with local businesses and leaders in the community,” Duffy said. “The garden can be a lucrative endeavor.”