Developmentally disabled students get boost toward horticulture jobs

'Over the last 15 weeks he's really seeing more of what he wants to do'
Angie Tompkins leads a Schenectady County Community College horticulture class earlier this spring.
Angie Tompkins leads a Schenectady County Community College horticulture class earlier this spring.

Nine students will graduate Monday from SCCC’s new horticulture certificate program, six of them developmentally disabled people gaining training for potential future jobs or just learning more about something they enjoy.

Some have already secured work with their new skills.

The 12-week program was a collaboration between Schenectady County Community College, the Schenectady ARC and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schenectady County.

Maria Kotary, SCCC’s associate for workforce development and community education, said the program was in development for nearly a year. Classes began in February and alternated between the Central Park greenhouse and a greenhouse at the ARC’s Maple Ridge Day Center in Rotterdam.

“There have been a few outside-the-classroom type experiences as well,” she said, as training in such things as customer service skills was interspersed with the care and cultivation of plants.

“We wanted to make sure there was that component.”

Angie Tompkins, the Extension’s master gardener coordinator, served as one of the instructors.

Once a week, for an hour and a half at a time, the class would cover a new topic. The curriculum included basic botany (care of annuals, perennials, herbs and vegetables), plant maintenance, watering, soil and plant nutrition, garden design, floral design, composting and pest control.

“We covered a lot of topics in 12 weeks,” she said.

Tompkins has had some experience with developmentally disabled people. She said teaching this class was readily doable, with some adaptation.

“The challenge is there are many different levels of learning taking place … but we were able to address that by providing different opportunities for learning,” she said. For example, students unable to read well or at all were provided pictorial guides.

There were also some very nice moments, such as when students teamed up to help each other learn, “which was really a great reward” to watch, she recalled.

One of the students was Zach Medick of Scotia, a 20-year-old Mohonasen graduate looking to channel his love of landscaping and gardening into a job.

“I completely enjoyed it,” he said. “Each week was a different part of horticulture, each was something else to be learned.”

After graduation Monday, he’s gearing up for the family’s annual spring tradition, in which he and his cousins put in their grandparents’ garden in Rotterdam. 

“I’m also doing some volunteering over at the Sustainable Living Center in Central Park,” Medick said, referring to the Extension’s presence in Central Park.

Beyond that, he hopes to work in the industry in some fashion, perhaps following his father into landscaping and landscape design.

“There’s tons of different ways I can go,” he said. “Mainly, I want to focus on gardening.”

Sari Medick said her son has had attention-deficit and anxiety issues. He struggled with classroom learning in high school but turned a corner when he started a BOCES program in 11th grade. It gave him the hands-on learning he likes and benefits from, she said, and the SCCC program he’s finishing provided more of this.

“This was the first opportunity he’s really had to get into a program like this,” she said. Between his education and his family history, he’s well suited for his chosen career field.

“He’s like a walking encyclopedia of plant knowledge,” Sari Medick said. “Over the last 15 weeks he’s really seeing more of what he wants to do.”

There are obstacles to developmentally disabled people entering the workforce, and she said her son has come up against them.

“He does have special needs,” she said, as do some of his classmates at SCCC. These shouldn’t disqualify them from hiring consideration, she added. “It doesn’t mean they’re any less capable.”

Ultimately, she’d like to see him attend college, possibly the agriculture-focused SUNY Cobleskill, as a way of improving his career prospects.

“There’s so much more promise for him if he has a college degree,” Sari Medick said. “Our hope is to get him that.”

Kotary said she worked with ARC years ago, and ran up against some of those workforce obstacles. Developmentally disabled people who were employable had trouble getting hired because of employer assumptions about what they could and could not do, she said.

“It’s really just a matter of getting to know who they are,” she said.

The $595 class fee was covered for six students by the non-profit Workforce Development Institute, and for one student by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

Some of the students who will graduate Monday already have found work, Kotary said: One at Felthousen’s Florist & Greenhouse, one in a greenhouse on a private estate and two maintaining plantings at the county airport.

She said SCCC will offer the horticulture program again in the spring of 2018, and may team up with ARC on other certificate programs — courses that are offered for personal and professional development, rather than academic credit.

“We work very well together, so we hope we can collaborate on future programs,” she said. Computer training would be a likely candidate for such a collaboration.

“Any kind of training program that you can think would be would appropriate for an individual without a disability, we can do for someone with a disability,” Kotary said.

Categories: -News-, Business, Schenectady County

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