Special Growers provides employment opportunities to people with disabilities

The greenhouse at special growers houses the hydroponics that grow basil, along with other herbs.
Photo courtesy of Beau Branton

Surrounded by the smell of fresh herbs, a local high school student armed with a basket, scissors, and rubber gloves begins to complete a mission—collect two pounds of parsley for a local restaurant. What is obvious is this student’s eagerness to get to work; less obvious, though, is their disability.

Special Growers is much more than a place that merely grows herbs. Special Growers offers a program with the mission of providing job training and employment opportunities to disabled young adults in Blount County. With a discouraging work environment for individuals with special needs, Special Growers takes the initiative to incorporate and provide disabled young adults with a meaningful job.

According to their website, Special Growers all started with the parents of children with special needs. “A group of parents to several recently-graduated high school special needs students initially formed Special Growers as the solution to the question of: … ‘what’s next for my child?’”

Instead of giving up hope in an environment not designed for disabled young adults—a world lacking “patience and understanding”—Special Growers stimulates an environment critical for these individuals to reach their true potential.

“The main mission of Special Growers is to give disabled young adults in the Blount County area job training and employment opportunities,” said Maria Laughlin, Garden Manager at Special Growers. “We also have a work study partnership with the four local high schools and their special education classes to offer skills training at the greenhouse every week.”

If you visit Special Growers, you will come across employees working together to harvest herbs, care for plants, or even paint boards for garden bed upkeep. It is clear to see the enthusiasm behind their work, and their desire to learn while earning a paycheck is unmatched.

“We will employ any disabled young adult that wants a job. We currently have 7 paid staff members. In the summer we hire between 15-20 additional adults and pay them. The look on their faces when they get their first paycheck is priceless. I had one guy who was so excited and proud to get a paycheck.”

“I asked what he was going to do with it and he said, ‘I can’t wait to take my mom to lunch, and I’m paying,” said Laghlin.

Not only does Special Growers give people with disabilities an opportunity to work for pay, it gives volunteers a chance to work closely with a successful non-profit. Maryville College’s Bonner program is a tuition-assistance program that pays students to volunteer in the community.

Rachael Weaver, a senior Environmental Studies major at Maryville College, chooses Special Growers as her service site. Weaver uses her time at Special Growers to assist in the day-to-day operations of the non-profit.

“Volunteering at Special Growers has taught me more about how to run a non-profit and has given me the opportunity to work and learn alongside people with disabilities. Their enthusiasm is refreshing,” Said Weaver.

The mission of Special Growers continues to spread on social media. Instagram pictures highlight employee’s accomplishments and shows the joy they have when working. Videos share testimonials from local restaurants that use their organic herbs, praising all of the employees at Special Growers for the work they do.

“Not only do we provide these young adults with job opportunities and skills training they wouldn’t always have, we also grow high-quality herbs that our chefs love,” Maria Laughlin said. “It’s a winning combination!”

Hidden on the outskirts of Maryville, Special Growers has succeeded in providing local restaurants with organic herbs, and they have excelled at providing jobs to members of the community with special needs. As a non-profit, they are committed to engaging with the people of Blount County, and are committed to hire any person with special needs. Special Growers takes a lot of pride in what they do, and what they’re doing for the community.

If you want to learn more about Special Growers’ mission, or even donate, visit their website.

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