Agriculture, marketing at the root of new program

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Beginning this season, special needs students from across Long Island will harvest crops at the Nassau BOCES Rosemary Kennedy School in Wantagh to feed senior citizens and food insecure families in their communities.

“This new program gives us many new opportunities to provide vocational instruction for our students,” Rosemary Kennedy School principal Matthew Zegers said. “The green house area serves as an outdoor classroom for them to grow healthy produce.”

Approximately 78 students with developmental disabilities who attend Nassau BOCES will participate in the new program which is tied to Smile Farms, a nonprofit which finds job opportunities related to agriculture for people with disabilities and aims to teach them farming skills, according to the organization’s website.

The Smile Farms at Nassau BOCES program kicked off officially Sept. 29 at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Wantagh location.

“I’m very excited that we’re able to provide this opportunity for our students,” said Zegers. “We constantly look for fun, creative new ways to challenge them and teach them new skill sets.”

In the program, “Smile Farmers”, ages 10 to 21, will learn to prepare produce for production, including seed-starting, cultivating, harvesting, marketing and distribution of their crops, Managing Director of Smile Farms Diana Martin said. Twelve raised cedar beds with irrigation will be used to grow peppers, tomatoes and other crops. Instructional rooms will be equipped with grow labs.

Martin said that this is the first time Smile Farms will partner with a program of multiple school districts and that she looks forward to the additional opportunities this will create.

“We have partnerships with two individual schools, but to partner with Nassau BOCES, knowing how many schools they have and how deeply rooted they are in the Nassau County community. … We feel like this is going to open up so many opportunities to create additional partnerships, which would mean more farms, more educational opportunities and possibly more job opportunities.”

Grown produce will be donated for use at Hempstead Senior Centers, the Meadowbrook Alternative Program at Brookside, Hempstead Conservation and Waterways, and used for campus lunches at Nassau BOCES facilities.

The program, which began late September, launched with two educational programs, ten teachers and 78 teens and young adults, Martin said. One Nassau BOCES graduate is currently working part-time at the Smiles Farm program.

Smile Farms founder Jim McCann, who is also the founder of 1-800-Flowers.com, Inc., said he is looking forward to the start of this new program.

“It’s an opportunity to broaden our services,” McCann said. “I get excited about helping people in need. I get excited when I see that they get excited about being able to help other people. There is something magical about that circle of service – they are in need but are helping others.”

McCann said his passion for philanthropy and his brother’s disability are parts of what prompted him to create Smile Farms. “Having a brother who was in need of these services played a big role,” he said. “He is extremely verbal and social. With Smile Farms, I was able to create a good career opportunity for [my] brother who is cherishing it.”

The Wantagh facility marks the 10th Smile Farms location in the NYC metro region. Nassau BOCES is a public agency that serves 300 schools and 225,000 students of the 56 school districts in Nassau County.

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