New Program Offers Garden-To-Table Apprenticeships To Neurodiverse Individuals

Written by Heidi Baumstark | Photos by Heather Overheu

Given the right conditions and attention, growth happens. Legacy Farms is providing settings for healthy growth — not just on the farm — but for the individuals who cultivate their produce and flowers for businesses and home kitchens throughout Loudoun County. By offering garden-to-table apprenticeships to neurodiverse individuals, their mission is to empower them to blossom and grow — all through the power of plants.

It starts at their two gardens: Temple Hall Farm Regional Park and the park’s neighbor, Fabbioli Cellars, both on Limestone School Road in Leesburg. Over 8,000 square feet of land is farmed providing over 40 job contracts for neurodiverse apprentices working with skilled, caring mentors who are rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty from growing fresh produce and flowers for CSA (community supported agriculture) programs and local businesses. But that’s just the beginning.

Laurie Young, the executive director of Legacy Farms (LF), is the guiding vision and innovation to this non-profit charitable organization established in 2012. In 2021, LF launched a new initiative called Growing Together, a foundational mentor/apprentice program opening doors for neurodiverse individuals who are hired for jobs in the garden, the community, farmer’s markets, and organizational projects.

And it definitely takes a village. That’s why LF partners with local businesses and organizations; one of them is the Middleburg-based nonprofit called A Place To Be. Since its start in 2010, A Place To Be (APTB) has implemented clinically based practices of music therapy to help people navigate and overcome life’s challenges. Certified music therapists provide therapy ranging from individual sessions to community programming to medical music therapy. The organization has gained wide recognition with students performing on various stages including the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., music therapy at local schools, and INOVA Loudoun Hospital.

While LF offers apprentice opportunities outside in the garden, APTB offers music therapy — a harmonious combo. By teaming up they provide a unified front: support for the development of self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-advocacy for neurodiversity. To understand neurodiversity is a concept in which neurological differences are recognized and respected as any other human variation. These differences can include those identified on the autism spectrum: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, traumatic brain injuries, learning challenges, and others.

“APTB and LF are a natural fit,” Young says. “Skills can be learned anywhere so that’s not our main focus. But in Growing Together, we focus on the ability to self-regulate, stay calm, social cueing, self-awareness, emotional- al health, mindfulness, and communication.” It’s addressing the difficulty with social and emotional regulation. Each day begins with a simple practice of becoming aware of the sounds around us. It’s about settling of the nervous system, self-regulating, which can be a barrier for neurodiverse individuals.

“We want to get at the core of that calming practice, so when they do face challenges, they can use the skills learned here to self-regulate and make creative contributions,” Young said. But Growing Together is open to all neurodiverse people who apply for apprenticeships, not just those affiliated with APTB. Through LF’s mentor/apprentice style of on-the-job training, skills are acquired for real-world experiences where participants see firsthand how their work impacts those around them.

Executive Director Laurie Young checking in with an apprentice.

APTB’s Clinical Director Kevin Leong shared how the pairing of the two organizations began. “Many APTB members are also at Legacy Farms,” Leong said. “Someone mentioned it and Laurie [Young] reached out to us. APTB is quite eclectic in terms of people we see, which includes teens with mental health needs and older people with Parkin- son’s.”

Leong explained that during the COVID pandemic, hour-long online programs were offered three times a week beginning in January 2021.

“We use songs as a mnemonic device to help people regulate,” he said. “We wrote a Legacy Farms theme song called ‘A Place to Be Under the Sun’ that includes the rules in song form.” They wrote another song called “the breathing song” with an end goal to use tempo to calm and self-regulate through breathing techniques. Practicing mindfulness exercises and meditation also helps with the senses.

In mid-April, apprentices went to the farm to garden twice a week. Garden sessions are five hours per week on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 – 11:30 a.m. Vegetables and herbs are grown at Temple Hall and flowers are grown at Fabbioli Cellars. Apprentices learn responsibility by performing duties such as planting seeds and seedlings, weeding, composting, landscaping, clean-up, watering, pruning, and harvesting. Then it’s off to prepare deliveries for clients, CSAs, and farmer’s markets.

Growing Together is structured around a seven-step framework guided by mentors. The first 3 steps include an initial 9 or 10 weeks of training and education starting in the spring or summer. Based on the person’s interest and needs, they can attend personal development training with APTB or LF’s training in the garden.

The next 3 steps continue for an additional 9 to 10 weeks and are paid apprenticeship positions. Apprentices sign a responsibility agreement, outline personal development goal setting, and work with trained mentors who are also paid. They work in teams as they learn how to grow, tend, and prepare flowers and produce for delivery to LF’s partners or for sale at farmer’s markets. They also learn time tracking and organizational skills, invoicing, and paperwork. It concludes with the apprentice receiving an official performance review, just like in other jobs. The seventh, final step is assisting with the transition. If LF has openings for ongoing positions in the garden or other entrepreneurial areas, apprentices can apply. LF is also available to help with resume preparation, application assistance, and transition to careers in the community.

Faustina Mora is a mentor at LF and a graduate student in health promotion and behavioral science with a concentration in community health and wellness. She has helped develop and refine LF’s progress tracking, personal evaluations, and self-reflection tools. She has also attended several APTB sessions and worked with Leong to facilitate data collection, while also mentoring at both garden sites and performing survey interviews with apprentices to track progress and determine how the program is working.

Mora said people can also volunteer at LF at either farm location. “We need all the hands we can get,” she said. “It’s good for people to come see what we’re doing, learn more about neurodiversity, and how we focus on a relational approach with the mentor/apprentice model, helping people transition to future employment.”

There are plenty of entrepreneurship opportunities. “If an apprentice has writing skills, we’ll ask them to write a blog,” Young said. Others have created graphic design for promotional pieces, honed photography and videography skills, and learned event coordination. The goal is to match strengths with LF’s needs, and whenever possible, open up opportunities. “We can capture their enthusiasm for a specific interest or skill and build on that,” Young said. “Then they have more excitement for the work they’re doing, and it becomes very meaningful. And we all want to do meaningful work.”

Cyrus Shahidi, an apprentice at LF, was in music therapy at APTB. At Fabbioli Cellars, he plants, mulches, weeds, and helps with irrigation tubes in the flower garden. “I love being out in the garden and talking with others,” he said. “It’s a good experience and I get to learn how to garden. It’s rewarding to see things grow. It’s grounding and I get to focus on listening and breathing.”

One example of a LF partner is Peter Pip- er’s Peppers. Ian Shanholtz, a mentor, makes hot sauces from peppers grown at the farm and sells them at farmer’s markets. “We love supporting local businesses and they, in turn, support our non-profit,” Young said. “Mentors guide and come alongside apprentices creating that equal work environment.”

Another example is collaborating with local businesses like Bear Chase Brewery in Bluemont. They do a pop-up market to sell LF’s farm products. Young said they have two apprentices there with two mentors. “They’re learning how to sell, to talk about the product,” Young said. “We also have dog treats made with our herbs and the labeling on packages is designed by another apprentice.”

“It’s a concept in which we’re accepting neurodiversity as any other human diversity,” Young said. “It’s hard when people are labeled, and assumptions are made about you. This ability to calm the nervous system — when that happens you can walk into any environment and self-regulate. We’re kind of a bridge providing opportunities for next steps.”

A YouTube video titled, “We Grow More Than Gardens,” shows Young in the garden with apprentices. Here’s what some apprentices say about LF in the video:

Consideration of the garden, plants, the earth translates into consideration of each other.

I’m working to help others — it feels like a community.

It’s a space for people to learn.

We get a chance to get along with different types of people.

It’s given me a community.

“LF is very focused on a prepared environment where the program itself presents motivation,” Young said. “You can’t make someone be intrinsically motivated, it has to come from within. It’s exciting and really miraculous in some cases.”

Everyone wants to leave a legacy. Legacy Farms is certainly living up to its name. ML

More about Legacy Farms can be found at legacyfarmsvirginia.org or by calling 571- 969-4468. Temple Hall Farm Regional Park is located at 15855 Limestone School Rd., and Fabbioli Cellars is located at 15669 Limestone School Rd., both in Leesburg. More about A Place To Be can be found at aplacetobeva. org or call 540-687-6740. It is located at 8 N. Jay St., Middleburg.

Photography: The photos in this article were taken by Heather Overheu. Overheu is a photography apprentice at Legacy Farms, who is learning entrepreneurial, organizational, and project-based skills. She is also a junior mentor in the garden where she is learning to support other apprentices with their garden and work skills.

This article first appeared in the July 2021 Issue.