A group of local residents working to establish a commercial greenhouse operation that would provide jobs for people coping with developmental and cognitive disabilities met Tuesday at A&G Restaurant with the New Jersey activist whose business model they hope to duplicate in Nodaway County.
Wendie Blanchard founded Arthur & Friends in 2008 in an effort to provide a handful of individuals, including her Down syndrome nephew, with meaningful employment.
Since then, the organization, which operates greenhouses in four New Jersey counties, has established a National Replication Program, the non-profit version of a franchise, that is being used to develop similar operations in 17 states.
Over the past five years, Blanchard said, the original Arthur & Friends has provided training or employment to nearly 400 individuals afflicted with a wide range of physical, mental and cognitive disabilities and handicaps, including disabled veterans
The Maryville organization, known as Lettuce Dream, was accepted into the program several months ago and has been working since to raise money and establish its business plan and organizational framework.
This week's dinner at A&G was planned as a celebration of that effort, hopefully culminating in the announcement of a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services grant that would have provided $75,000 in start-up funds over three years.
Grant recipients were to have been notified September 1, but the funding was put on hold following this week's federal government shutdown.
Despite the setback, Lettuce Dream leader Diane Francis said the group is determined to push on with efforts to raise funds privately and build a local network of grassroots supporters.
Blanchard, whose organization has won praise from the Obama administration and attracted media coverage by the New York Times and other major news outlets, said this week she is impressed with what Francis and others have accomplished and is convinced that Lettuce Dream has what it takes to become a reality.
"It's very impressive," she said. "One reason Arthur & Friends selected this group is that Diane, their champion, has brought together so many talented, motivated individuals. These are people who are going to make something happen."
Others involved in the local organization include retired U.S. Army National Guard Maj. Gen. Wayne Pierson and Rego Jones, who teaches horticulture at Northwest Missouri State University and runs his own for-profit greenhouse north of Maryville.
Some local funds have already been raised, and Francis said that if the grant eventually comes through, Lettuce Dream will be in a position to move forward with site acquisition, construction and the purchase of hydroponic technology capable of growing commercial-grade produce for sale to schools, shops, restaurants and institutional dining operations.
The parent of an autistic child, Francis said there is a crucial need in northwest Missouri for more jobs that can offer people with disabilities both a source of income and the sense of purpose that comes from doing meaningful work.
Page 2 of 2 - "We have a lot of young people who are facing what I call 'the cliff' after they finish high school," Francis said. "There's no net there to catch them."
Blanchard said she has seen first hand how greenhouses can offer people who face serious life challenges a chance to reach their full potential while helping serve an expanding market for locally grown produce cultivated in an environmentally responsible manner.
"The demand for this kind of produce is growing," she said, "but the production capacity is limited. So here is an opportunity for people who may have been considered unemployable to be employed in a meaningful way. It's very hard not to say 'yes' to it."