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Adults With Autism May Be Loudoun’s Next Agribusiness Workforce

© Leesburg Today - 06/25/2015

Young people with autism have few options after they phase out of public school, even though many are capable and eager to work. But parents, educators and leaders in Loudoun County's farm and winery industries are working to change that.

Last week's commencement ceremony at Loudoun County High School marked more than an exciting milestone for graduate Ian Pham. It meant the end of the special education services that the 22-year-old with autism has received since he was 4.

""We were nervous about what he might do next,"" his mother, An-Thanh Pham, said. ""But he has options now.""

Thanks to a new nonprofit, just a few hours after Ian Pham accepted his diploma, he was busy taking part in an internship-style program. On a hot Wednesday evening, he watered rows of vegetables and pulled weeds away from delicate grape vines at the new Legacy Farms Summer Garden.

Young people with autism have few options after they phase out of public school, even though many are capable and eager to work. But some parents, educators and leaders in Loudoun County's farm and winery industries are working to change that.

They've pooled their resources and know-how to start Legacy Farms, an organization that will train people with autism and other developmental challenges farming skills.

""Loudoun County is full of agribusiness and job opportunities that would be great for people like Ian. There's just no one bridging that gap,"" said Martha Schonberger, president of Legacy Farms, who's taught children with autism for 19 years. ""That's where we'll come in.""

The group will hold a Family Fun Day and ribbon-cutting ceremony to unveil its Legacy Farms Summer Garden at Temple Hall Farm Regional Park on Sunday. The half-acre plot donated by Temple Hall, just north of Leesburg, is a demonstration garden that will serve as an outdoor classroom for the organization.

This summer, 10 to 15 young people with autism will go through a five-week pilot program that will teach them various types of agriculture skills, from how to work safely in the garden to how to plant, prune and eventually harvest.

""Every person in the program has different things they're good at and different challenges, and we'll tailor the training for each individual,"" said Patrick Cox, a Legacy Farms board member who recently completed the Virginia Master Gardener course.

Legacy Farms participants who land work will be paired with job coaches who will help them transition into a specific position. The coaches also will teach employers how best to communicate and lead their new hire.

""There are currently over 1,400 working farms in Loudoun,"" Cox said, ""and we plan to reach out to each commercial farm, vineyard, brewery and nursery in Loudoun and see how we can come together to create new jobs.""

Already, there are interested employers.

The managers at Sunset Hills Vineyard, near Purcellville, want to interview the top two or three performing interns from this summer's program, and Tarara Winery, just north of Lucketts, donated 52 vines-chardonnay, merlot, tannat and viognier-to the Legacy Farms Summer Garden so the interns could learn firsthand how to cultivate wine grapes.

Jordan Harris, Tarara Winery's winemaker and general manager, said when he first heard about Legacy Farms' mission, he wanted to do anything he could to help in its success, both as an employer and father of a 4-year-old with autism.

He said his son is receiving ""incredible support"" through Loudoun's public school system. ""But once students like him graduate, there's nothing.""

He called a program like Legacy Farms a ""win-win"" because it helps bridge the gap between school and employment, and helps meet local employers' needs for a trained workforce.

""One thing we definitely struggle with in the vineyard is finding people who really want to do the job, and some of these people with autism really want to do these jobs and, frankly, it's the type of work that their skill sets are well suited to,"" Harris said.

Schonberger agreed that farm work is ideal for many of the young people with autism that she's taught over the years because it's repetitive in nature and set in a calming atmosphere.

Harris, whose son loves machinery, said he could picture him meticulously tilling. ""Once they find that focus on something they love, they can far exceed anybody in the job,"" he said. ""And we need that. There aren't many people growing up these days saying, 'I want to be a farmer.'""

Legacy Farms also is developing a seven-acre parcel north of Purcellville that it hopes to lease long-term to provide more space to train, and one day even house, more people. The organization needs to raise $300,000 before it can move onto the property, and Cox is hoping to raise about half that by the end of the summer.

The group also is forming partnerships with ECHOWorks and Paxton Campus, which both serve people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Legacy Farm's long-term goal is to connect a workforce of trained young people, who happen to have developmental challenges, with employers who need them.

""They know the difference between real, meaningful work and busy work,"" Schonberger said. ""We all choose our jobs because we want to contribute to society. Why shouldn't they?""

Learn more about Legacy Farms at http://www.autisminloudoun.org.

Ribbon Cutting and Family Fun Day

Noon-4 p.m. Sunday, June 28

15789 Temple Hall Lane, Leesburg

The event will feature plenty of farm fun and several vendors, including Loudoun Veg, Summit Therapy Animal Services, and Xango. Loudoun County Master Gardeners President Denise Palmer and Tarara Winery General Manager Jordan Harris will be on hand to answer gardening questions.

Details at www.autisminloudoun.org.

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