Arthur & Friends is a New Jersey non-profit which trains individuals with developmental and other disabilities and disadvantages to grow and sell organic produce for local restaurants and farmer markets and other retail customers. The program was founded five years ago by Wendie Blanchard whose 33-year-old nephew, Arthur, has Down syndrome. After hearing about how bored Arthur was ‘toiling in a sheltered workshop popping dog treats like pigs’ ears into plastic bags for five hours a day,’ Blanchard sought to help him find a more rewarding job’, says the New York Times, and so Arthur and Friends came into being.

Arthur & Friends operates three hydroponic greenhouses in New Jersey. The greenhouses grow an assortment of organic greens from dandelions, arugula, and kale to tak soi and bok choy. Seed catalogues are sent to local restaurants, who can place a custom order for greens.

Currently there are 37 trainees in the program; their diagnoses include autism, cerebral palsy, strokes, traumatic brain injury, Huntington’s disease and severe bipolar disorder. Participants work 8 to 20 hours a week in a ‘four-tier, 200-hour program that trains them in hydroponic agriculture and also teaches invoicing, ordering, shipping, conducting online sales and interacting with customers.’ Some graduates of the program are hired in the greenhouses and earn an hourly pay rate from $7.45 to $13, depending on their responsibilities; they also can receive assistance to find a job at the estimated 184 greenhouses in the area served by the Northwest New Jersey Community Action Program, which originally sponsored Arthur & Friends.

The program has received inquiries from numerous organizations in New Jersey and across the country, including Detroit; Birmingham, Ala.; Jackson, Wyo.; and Kealakekua, Hawaii. It has received funding from the Kessler Foundation, $48,162 to set up the Sussex County greenhouse in 2008 and then $500,000 in 2009 to expand the project to Hackettstown in NJ’s Sussex County and other sites.

As the New York Times underscores, such program are not easy to start or to maintain. Funding for Arthur & Friends originally came from federal grants which are now threatened. Starting a greenhouse is costly, and not a small, endeavor.

The website for Arthur & Friends asks others to ‘join us in cultivating a better planet.’ It aims to provide employment opportunities for those with disabilities and disadvantages by developing ‘an organizational culture that encourages persons with disabilities to utilize their potential to contribute rather than discounting them on the basis of stereotypes or generalizations about their “limitations.”‘ Even more, its mission is ‘to bring disabled and impoverished people out of the shadowy world to which they are typically confined.’

As described, Arthur & Friends is pretty much the sort of program my husband Jim and I hope our teenage autistic son Charlie might one day be part of. Our hope is that Charlie will have a job in the community (rather than in the more institutional setting of a sheltered workshop such as Arthur Blanchard worked in prior to the creation of Arthur & friends) and doing work that is meaningful and, of course, work that Charlie likes. Working in a greenhouse may not be Charlie’s idea of what he’d like to do. But we do know that he likes to be busy, and to be active, and, well, I happen to like my greens.

And I’m sure they would taste even better if I knew that my boy had a hand in growing them.

written by Kristina Chew

On a trip to New Jersey a few years ago I personally had the pleasure of meeting Wendie & Jim  and seeing their operation first hand. As a parent of a special needs child it was inspiring to see something that would offer some variety to the normal activities available for people with disabilities. I have to say that I wish that there were more programs like this in all areas so more people could benefit.