Last week I had the pleasure of visiting Roses For Autism (http://www.rosesforautism.com/), a non-profit rose farm in Guilford, Connecticut whose overarching mission is to benefit individuals with autism. I first became interested in Roses about a year ago, and I was immediately intrigued by their emphasis on supportive employment and transitioning special needs individuals to the real world.
It was a pleasant drive from New York to Connecticut on I-95 on an overcast and crisp, but not yet cold, fall afternoon. Foliage lined the highway. I arrived at the Pinchbeck rose farm at about two o'clock in the afternoon. Cows grazed on the side of the road as we pulled up to the main entrance. We were greeted warmly by Tom Pinchbeck and Michelle Ouimette. I had hoped to observe the employees in action, but they had just left for the day. Tom and Michelle showed me around the premises. On the lot, there were two greenhouses, one of which was currently in use. The one greenhouse produces around 500,000 roses per year. Lilies are grown and sold as well, but those make up a much smaller share of the business. A high-powered boiler room provides a steady flow of steam to the greenhouse to maintain an optimal temperature.
The individuals with autism whom Roses employs are responsible for growing, monitoring, cutting, packaging, and shipping the roses, as well as for other aspects of the business. They are paid employees, not interns or volunteers - a distinction that Roses emphasizes to encourage ownership. Since Roses is an "inclusive" environment, most of the employees are "typically developing" people who serve as mentors to those with special needs. Students from local mainstream public and private schools volunteer at the rose farm. Profits from the sale of flowers are invested back into the business to cover employees' salaries, to fund scholarships and career training programs, and to ensure that the business can sustain itself in the future.
If Roses is the business part of the organization, Discover Learn Work is the training part. Individuals with autism and related disorders can enroll in Discover Learn Work for business training that may include coursework at college campuses, internship opportunities at various training sites, coaching through the job interview process, or support through gainful employment.
What I found particularly interesting is that Discover Learn Work works with local public schools to meet the needs of transitioning students who require vocational training. In New York, transition programs and vocational training are a huge unmet need. Discover Learn Work participates in IEP meetings to aid in developing transition goals, and works with IEP students to implement their transition goals at one of the Discover Learn Work training sites.
Roses is part of a larger parent company called Ability Beyond (http://abilitybeyond.org/about-us/), which is run by CEO Tom Fanning (http://www.rosesforautism.com/tf/) and operates in Connecticut and New York. Roses is a growing company with plans for expansion. Short-term goals include opening the second greenhouse and creating a stronger brand image. Long-term expansion plans are still taking shape.
On my way out, I purchased a few dozen short-stem roses and some lilies for the women in my family, who were enchanted by the scent and quality of the flowers.