This article was written by Local Food Systems Intern, Sarah Schenck. Hidden away amongst an unassuming concrete space in central Phoenix, there thrives an urban garden that’s growing more than just vegetables. This is the home of GardenWorks, a Social Enterprise initiative of the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center. The GardenWorks program provides community-based job training for adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder through hands-on gardening, sustainable landscaping, and water harvesting education to foster skills that individuals can use to sustain their future financial independence.
Although the garden was initially founded five years ago with funding from a philanthropic grant, it has seen some recent renovations and is in the midst of a relaunch under the caring hands of GardenWorks Coordinator, Sarah Mathiasen, and Social Enterprise Director, Kate Thoene. Beginning March 30th, the program will offer ten week internship sessions for the center's clients, in which participants will commit 25 hours weekly, receive one-on-one instruction, and create an individualized resume upon completion.
Besides the garden’s impressive hydroponics greenhouse, rainwater harvesting cisterns, a wooden coop housing escape-artist chickens (they try), and the nearly 100 lbs of veggies produced this past month, the real success of the program is its resource base for developing transferable skills. The GardenWorks internship is all about building assets, which occurs through opportunities to practice customer service, strengthen social skills, and all aspects of urban agriculture. But it extends beyond just what goes on in the garden. From experience riding public transit to community networking, participants of the program walk away with greater confidence that prepares them for the job market. Of the approximately 70 interns graduated thus far, more than 50 are now employed.
Meandering through the garden, SARRC’s commitment to community partnerships becomes evident through an adaptive reuse brick art piece designed by ASU students, in addition to a compost bin recently constructed by Eagle Scouts. Future collaboration plans with Roosevelt Row's Growhouse and HandsOn Greater Phoenix will move the garden one step closer to becoming a community space with the installation of picnic tables.
Brimming with beets, fava beans, celery, cabbage, and more, the garden’s harvest currently goes directly to SARRC’s Beneficial Beans Cafés- an avenue offering further opportunity for skill development in marketing and sales. However, a CSA program is in the works. Interns will eventually harvest, package, and sell weekly produce at an on-site farm stand. Locally roasted Beneficial Beans coffee, flowers, and eggs from the garden's chickens will also make an appearance in baskets down the line.