US: the history of Smile Farms, a welcoming place for people with a disability

Smile Farms started in 2015 to help people with developmental disabilities. "We started Smile Farms in 2015 to help people with developmental disabilities, but our experience with the community dates to our childhood. Our brother, Kevin, was born with such a disability, and one thing we remember from early in life is how important our parents’ response to that was," the company explains.

"At the time, there was very little public support for people like our brother. Educational services, at least where we lived, were inadequate." 

"In 1994, Kevin moved into a group home operated by Independent Group Home Living Program Inc., (IGHL) a Long Island organization that provides services and support for people with developmental disabilities. When IGHL’s executive director, Walter Stockton, pointed out the difficulty many developmentally disabled people have in finding jobs, we volunteered to help.

We had been looking for the right organization to work with and had been supporting IGHL. It turns out the thing we had been looking for was just under our nose! We soon found meaningful employment for people in this community is hard to find. The IGHL team is passionate and committed, and the partner agencies and volunteers allow us to impact our participants and their families.

In response, we opened our first year-round greenhouse operation at IGHL and called it Smile Farms. Today, Smile Farms has expanded to 10 campuses. We offer employment, vocational training and educational services including integrating work-based learning." 

Jim feels that work is about a lot more than a paycheck. It’s about who we are. It’s about fulfillment and engagement, a sense of contributing and it’s social too. One of the things Chris values most about the program is that it creates sustainable business models. Funds generated from the sale of Smile Farms plants are used to support programming. He points out that at the end of the day, Smile Farms raises people’s hopes because it works.

Smile Farms is the signature philanthropic partner of 1-800-FLOWERS.COM, and we support the organization with donations, volunteers, guidance in business operations, and help with marketing campaigns. It’s also very much a personal commitment for us and our family. At 67, Kevin continues to work at Smile Farms and is thriving.

The continuing challenge and Smile Farms’ response
Job training and placement are critical for this community. According to a 2020 study, just 39% of people with disabilities who lived in group homes were employed. That’s less than half the employment rate for the general population.

"We are committed to being part of the solution, and we’re expanding the community. For instance, Smile Farms is collaborating with Family Residences and Essential Enterprises Inc. (FREE), to deliver fresh produce, along with other groceries, PPE and medication to over 300 individuals with disabilities and other home-bound Long-Islanders in need. Nutrition education will also be provided to encourage healthy eating and overall wellness.

And Smile Farms is in the final stages of bringing its own hot sauce to market. This spring, all seven Smiles Farms partners are planting peppers on their campuses, which will result in 10 gardens growing about 2,500 pounds of peppers. By the fall, we expect about 6,000 bottles of the hot sauce will be ready to market.

In all this, we welcome all the help we can get. We have a vigorous and growing volunteer program, with opportunities ranging from visiting for one-day planting days to fundraising. We hope you’ll have a look,"  the company says.

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