Growing Opportunities combines job training, urban farming



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Michael Ely, one of the client of the Growing opportunity, inspects the plants and decides which ones make to the next stage. Tiantian Zhang Buy Photos

On Monday they plant seeds. On Tuesday they transplant. On Thursday they harvest. But every morning a group of adults with varying disabilities meets at a greenhouse behind Stone Belt to develop their work skills.

That greenhouse is home to Growing Opportunities, a project that combines job training with urban farming. It’s a product of the South Central Community Action Program and Stone Belt, which provides programming for people with disabilities. The second session of Growing Opportunities began Sept. 21. For 20 weeks, clients accepted into the program spend their mornings working in a greenhouse and learning job skills.

“It goes beyond the greenhouse,” said Tiba Walter, an instructor at Stone Belt who helps with Growing 
Opportunities.

At 8:30 on a Tuesday morning, five people gathered at a table under a white tent to inspect Bibb lettuce. In front of them were black plastic flats lined with brown spongey cubes. Tiny green leaves emerged from these.

“Five, four, three, two, one, zero!” Jeff Stillions, a Growing Opportunities client, counted down before throwing an undesirable sprout into a white bucket on the ground.

At this stage the seedlings are only a few weeks old. If their roots are strong and their stems don’t wobble, inspectors like Stillions put them back — but if they’re weak, if Michael Ely, another client, deems them “bad,” into the trash they go.

“What about this one?” Stephanie Weber, a Growing Opportunities client, asked Ely. He answers with an electronic voice. His freckled hands move across a keyboard attached to his wheelchair, fingers pressing down on buttons that give life to his words.

“Good,” he said. Weber called him the expert at 
inspection.

Nicole Wooten, who manages the project, said it’s open to any low-income adult who applies.

“The most interesting thing we saw was how much confidence the folks had by the end of the program,” she said. “That was the coolest thing for me.”

Brandon Duncan is a volunteer at Growing Opportunities. He took part in the first session and said it helped him get a job at Help at Home, Inc., where he helps people with disabilities accomplish tasks. Duncan couldn’t put to words his attraction to working in the greenhouse — but it brought him back to the program.

“I really don’t know why I like it. I just do,” he said. “(It’s) kind of unreal to see plants grow from when you first put them in one of the channels.”

Growing Opportunities clients get to watch their seeds grow from sprouts to lush green bunches bursting from the long white channels that fill the greenhouse. These channels hold the spongey squares that different varieties of lettuce grow from. No soil is used to grow the kale and Bibb, Tropicana, salad mix and Ruby Sky lettuces that the project sells to Bloomington grocery stores and businesses.

“We’re sticking mainly with the greens,” Wooten said. “What we grow is dependent on what our customers want.”

Yogi’s Bar and Grill, Lucky’s Market, Upland Brewery, Feast and Sahara Mart are among the buyers that use the lettuce for salads and burger toppings. Revenue from produce sales goes back into the program.

Wooten said clients are responsible for planting, transplanting, harvesting and packaging. For several hours each morning they work outside, but by 10:30 a.m., Walter said, they head inside to a classroom for the job skills part of the program.

Walter and Wooten said this session is going well so far. Wooten said she wants the program to expand within the next few years. Right now, they’re looking for a site for a second greenhouse. Pinning down a spot is the “trickiest” part of building in Bloomington, Wooten said.

“We want to be able to expand the program and offer it to more people, and have more opportunities for folks,” she said. “We want it to be accessible to people.”

Wooten said clients have surprised and delighted her within the past year.

“Their confidence and self-esteem were amazing,” Wooten said. “It took a lot of learning to get there, but they’re capable of so much.”

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