Twelve developmentally disabled adults and counting are diving into agricultural work at the newest location of Smile Farms in Yaphank. The non-profit opened its fifth space in April at Cornell Cooperative Extension in partnership with IGHL, and features a day habilitation center, an outdoor garden and a greenhouse.
Like the other locations, this one gives developmentally disabled adults a much-needed opportunity to obtain paid work and find a place within their communities. Jim McCann, the founder of 1-800-Flowers.com, started Smile Farms in 2015 after seeing the struggles the population faces firsthand from his brother, Kevin. McCann spoke more about the organization, which just opened another location in Manhattan, and the desire to keep growing.
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Why was it important for you to start Smile Farms?
I’ve always held a strong belief that citizens, employees and neighbors should play an integral part in making a difference in the communities in which they work and live. For individuals with developmentally disabilities, like my brother Kevin McCann, there are often difficulties in fully integrating into the community…Everyone should be able contribute within their own community, and we’re focused on building a movement that makes this possible. With six campus locations and 75 employees and counting, I think we’re well on our way.
Where do you find employees?
We work closely with organizations that provide vocational training and services to developmentally disabled students and adults. In most cases, these individuals have received job training and Smile Farms acts as the next step in providing an agricultural work environment for hands-on learning and experience. To date, we’ve hired employees originating from vocational programs offered by Independent Group Home Living (IGHL), the Center for Family Support (CFS), the League Education & Treatment Center (LETC), Skills Unlimited and The Viscardi Center.
What jobs are given to the individuals with developmental disabilities?
As with all work opportunities, the jobs at Smile Farms’ campuses are determined based on individual skillsets and preferences. Gardeners and greenhouse workers handle a variety of tasks including weeding, potting and organizing/transporting produce throughout the facilities. Each location is unique, from their respective growing techniques to the distinct varieties of plants they grow, allowing employees to learn versatile skills through hands-on experience and providing a sense of pride and dedication for their work.
Any success stories?
Each individual working at a Smile Farms location is a success story. With 80 percent of U.S. adults with a developmental disability unemployed, Smile Farms provides meaningful work opportunities to its employees. These jobs provide them with much more than just employment. Their work gives them a strong sense of purpose, independence and belonging within their communities while allowing them to contribute, be social and active.
Where do you hope to see the organization 10 years from now?
We continue to have ongoing conversations with organizations to explore opportunities for the continued expansion of Smile Farms. Our hope is to make a significant dent in the current 80 percent unemployment rate for developmentally disabled adults.