BY JANA WILSON
Sometimes learning to grow lettuce can help you learn more important skills. At Growing Opportunities, that’s the goal. The educational urban hydroponic farming program—a cooperative venture between the South Central Community Action Program (SCCAP) and Stone Belt—offers job skills and training to those facing employment barriers due to developmental disabilities.
“It’s been an amazing springboard for many of our clients,” says Nathan Gilbert, lifelong learning supervisor at Stone Belt. “A lot of our clients have gained skills to help them find jobs.”
Located on the Stone Belt main campus at 2815 E. 10th St., Growing Opportunities students spend Mondays in the classroom. “We cover soft skills,” says Program Manager Errin Logsden. “Personal space, appropriate behaviors on the job site, being on time—the things that you would need to know at a job.”
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, students head out to work in the hydroponic greenhouse where they clean the channels where the plants are grown, transplant shoots into the channels, and harvest the produce (herbs, greens, and different varieties of lettuce) that grows to full size in three to four weeks. The work only halts temporarily during the worst heat of summer or the coldest winter months.
Over the course of the 20-week class, students also learn to weigh and package the produce sold to local businesses. Bloomingfoods and Lennie’s are two long-time customers, Logsden says. Growing Opportunities also sells to the Hoosier Hills Food Bank and Babbs SuperValu grocery store in Spencer.
Looking to the future, SCCAP would like to acquire land for additional greenhouses and permanent classroom space to extend services to other groups of people, such as at-risk teens. “I think we could become self-sustaining with more greenhouses,” Logsden says.
In the end, the goal is not to train the students in agriculture, but rather to teach them to work in any job. Logsden notes that while none of the graduates of Growing Opportunities has gone into agricultural work, many are employed successfully at businesses around Bloomington. “The biggest thing we have seen with our clients is the change in them,” she says.
Visit insccap.org/pages/growingopportunities for more information.