The New Growth Project in Rockford, MI, Offers a Variety of Employment Opportunities for Neurodiverse Individuals

August 3, 2023

By: Lindsey Schmidt, Eco-Journalism and Blogging Intern

81% of individuals with cognitive disabilities are unemployed. Christine O’Driscoll and Carly Vanduinen, co-founders of the New Growth Project, both have personal connections to neurodiverse individuals and know that a lack of employment can lead to people longing for a sense of purpose, connection, and confidence. As such, they kickstarted the New Growth Project in an effort to provide inclusive job opportunities to neurodiverse individuals. I sat down with Christine and Carly to chat about their mission statement, farming techniques, employment opportunities, and more.  

The New Growth Project held its grand opening in May 2022 and is currently in its second growing season. Even in just the last year, Christine, Carly, and the rest of the staff have been able to learn from their first growing season and implement changes to their approach for their second growing season. They have become more intentional with their farming, laying out crops in such a way that they benefit each other – a technique otherwise known as companion planting. For example, all of their tomato plants have basil in between them, basil being an herb that is known to prevent pests from disturbing the tomato plants and is thought to improve the yield of the crop. The staff at the New Growth Project has a daily communication plan so they know where everything is and what needs to be done that day which, in addition to making their farming more fruitful, has contributed to a sense of teamwork and intentionality. Other techniques they utilize in order to improve the quality and quantity of their crops are soil testing and pollinator gardens. Christine and Carly have noticed that with every step they make to improve the quality of the environment in which the crops are growing, the “plants are happier.” As the farm is still very new, the staff members are still learning and adapting and they have plans to incorporate even more sustainable practices in the future.    

A lot of the produce harvested on the farm goes to local restaurants, and many florists have been reaching out to the New Growth Project for some of their flowers. In addition to selling crops and flowers to local restaurants and florists, the farm has a shop on the property in which they sell their produce as well as some of the other products that are made on-site, including candles, room sprays, and bath salts. These products can either be purchased individually or in gift boxes, which include the New Growth Project’s products as well as products from other organizations that employ neurodiverse individuals, including Beer City Dog Biscuits, Stir It Up Bakery, and Ability Weavers. The gift boxes not only give business to these local organizations, but they also provide more employment opportunities to neurodiverse employees who might not want to work out in a field.

As there are many different facets of the New Growth Project and a great variety in the products the farm generates, there are numerous positions and tasks available for employees. Christine and Carly work with their neurodiverse employees in order to give them the positions that most aptly suit their needs. In order to accomplish this, they have conversations with their employees about what they liked and disliked about any previous jobs they might’ve had. Through these conversations, Christine and Carly are able to observe which tasks each employee prefers. They have found that some employees excel at running the cash system and talking to customers, others thrive out in the fields planting and washing crops, and others prefer to make and pack products into the gift boxes. They have scaled back the amount of property that they are farming this year as compared to last year, which has allowed them to focus more on the programming, teaching, and community connection aspects of the farm. As a result of this, Christine and Carly have noticed changes in their employees from last year to this year – in addition to learning from their experiences last year, the additional focus on training and teaching has allowed the employees to become more independent.

The New Growth Project also utilizes a peer mentor program for their employees: every neurodiverse employee is paired with a peer mentor who works alongside them to demonstrate the tasks that the employees are assigned to. Each task has a corresponding checklist so that the employee and the peer mentor can work through it systematically. As some neurodiverse individuals struggle with executive functioning tasks, the peer mentors are also there to remind them to drink water or take a break from being out in the sun. The farm has partnered with Goodwill through their Visions program in order to bring job coaches out to the farm and they employ and train their own peer mentors. Christine and Carly are looking to expand their capacity for employment of neurodiverse individuals, and for that they need more peer mentors. As each peer mentor is led by Carly through the training program, no specific qualifications are required: “If you have a knack for having patience and seeing the ability in someone that may not be immediately apparent, and have the desire to see the growth in somebody, I think we can train you.”  

In addition to expanding their capacity for employment, one of the goals of the New Growth Project for the upcoming years is to make improvements to their hoop house, including venting, another layer of plastic, a water source, and a heat source. In doing so, the organization will be able to grow and harvest crops year-round, thus allowing them to offer year-round employment. Another goal of the farm is to acquire a van. In addition to making transporting produce to farmers markets, restaurants, and florists easier, having a van would allow employees with physical ailments to ride along and experience more of what the organization does outside the boundaries of the farm itself. In order to make these improvements, the organization needs to raise funds. Each year, the New Growth Project sells produce such as cucumbers, peppers, herbs, and tomatoes as well as other products such as annuals, ferns, flower baskets, and cut flowers at their annual flower sale. In August, they will be hosting a Chef Dinner, during which a local chef will prepare a meal using produce from the farm. Additionally, they host events such as Candles and Cocktails and sell their products at the Rockford Farmers Market and Romence Gardens.  

If you are interested in helping the New Growth Project achieve its goals, consider attending their events or purchasing their products. The farm also hosts family volunteer days on Wednesdays and Saturdays. At these events, parents and kids assist in a variety of tasks on the farm and can learn about the process behind getting fruits and vegetables onto the dinner table rather than just seeing the final product. Check out the New Growth Project’s website for more details about their events, volunteer opportunities, and the peer mentor program and help the farm accomplish its goals.