On April 27, New Albany nonprofit organization Lettuce Work, 14985 Fancher Road, will open its nursery, which will remain in operation through June.
This will be the second season for the nursery. Lettuce Work’s husband-and-wife founders, Doug and Julie Sharp, said it provides both a learning environment for young adults on the autism spectrum and a means for the community to connect with the organization.
The nursery carries such products as landscaping materials, flowers and plants, Doug Sharp said.
Doug and Julie Sharp began growing lettuce at Lettuce Work in 2014, and the organization’s goal remains helping those on the autism spectrum develop a fundamental understanding of workplace behavior, he said.
In this case, the work involved was cultivating a salad blend that Lettuce Work sells through Kroger, Giant Eagle other local independent grocery stores, Doug Sharp said.
“That’s really how we got started,” he said.
The nursery was another opportunity to teach, the Sharps said.
Julie Sharp is an intervention specialist at Oakstone Academy in Westerville, which Doug Sharp describes as a school modeled on inclusion, with an approximately 50-50 ratio of students on the autism spectrum to typical peers who model appropriate behavior.
The Sharps have two sons who attend Oakstone: Daniel, 18, a senior who is on the spectrum, and Ryan, 15, a freshman who is not.
When Oakstone opened its high school, Doug Sharp said, he realized that although the students on the spectrum have a great deal of support through high school, that support can fall off after school. Functional kids on the spectrum can have a hard time interviewing for a job and keeping it, he said.
Lettuce Work was a way to teach students the difference between a workplace and family and school life, Doug Sharp said.
The organization focuses on working with people 18 to 23 years old, he said, and most work there as part of their school curriculum, with “the intent of helping them make a successful transition from high school into the working world.”
Students can stay at Oakstone until they are 22, Julie Sharp said.
With the advent of the nursery, the organization has a retail environment in which to offer training, Doug Sharp said. Interacting with customers helps students learn social cues, he said.
“It gave them some skills that I know they can directly transfer to other types of jobs,” he said.
Depending on their skills and interests, the workers are rotated through the nursery and greenhouse, Doug Sharp said. About a dozen per day stay busy at Lettuce Work, he said.
Students working during the week are there as part of their high school curriculum, but others might be hired during busy months, Doug Sharp said.
“It’s an actual part of their daily schedule, similar to kids attending voc-ed classes when I went to high school many years ago,” he said. “We do hire some of those students to work for us during the spring and summer months in paid positions in the greenhouse and nursery, which is separate from (and in addition to) the time they spend here with their teachers.”
During the three months the nursery is open, Lettuce Work hires volunteers during weekends to work for three or four hours at a time, Julie Sharp said.
Though the nursery has opened opportunities for additional skill-building, she said, the retail store has allowed the community to visit.
“We get so much more exposure this way,” she said.
Many customers come from Johnstown and New Albany, and others come from families with children who attend Oakstone.
Brent Langenkamp, the greenhouse manager who gives students tasks, said the nursery provides more options than just tending to the lettuce. In the store, student workers may plant or prune plants, depending on the time of year.
Although Johnstown residents Mark and Christie Weiner already were familiar with Lettuce Work and the Sharps, last year the couple purchased vegetables and other garden supplies for their raised-bed garden.
Mark Weiner said his family plans to do the same this season.
The organization, he said, is a wonderful opportunity for workers on the autism spectrum.
“As a customer, it is great to support an organization that gives back, not only to the community, but empowers the employees during meaningful work,” he said.