For students at Esperanza Education Center, an adult transition program serving students with disabilities in south Orange County, Calif., there was something deeply satisfying about handpicking 2,000 pounds of avocados.
“There's a tangible, visual element where you're like, ‘Wow, I did that – I did it, I can see it, I can feel it in my bones and my muscles,'” said Ray Bueche, principal of the school in Mission Viejo, within the Saddleback Valley Unified School District. “There's a real sense of accomplishment that you're seeing in some of these students.”
Ranging in age from 18 to 22, the students are in an adult education program that helps advance their independent living skills and prepare them for meaningful work and careers. They are able to experience the thrill of the harvest – and a variety of other farming activities – through the school's innovative partnership with UC South Coast Research and Extension Center, a University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources facility that supports researchers and delivers outreach and education programs.
Given UC ANR's emphasis on workforce development, Jason Suppes, a community education specialist at South Coast REC, contacted Bueche in 2019 about a potential collaboration. While Esperanza has many partnerships with retail stores and nonprofits that give students invaluable work experiences, none of them offer the farm environment that South Coast REC could provide.
“Part of developing [our students] is getting a wide range of opportunities in a variety of vocational areas,” Bueche explained. “Agriculture is one that's very hard for us to find.”
Program ‘wildly successful' from beginning
Unlike other job sites that bring the students in less frequently, South Coast REC committed to hosting the young people every week for three hours (COVID-19 measures permitting), with Suppes and colleague Tammy Majcherek leading them in planting, weeding, maintenance, harvesting and more.
“We can provide opportunities for students to learn skills that could help them potentially find employment in a garden center, in a nursery, at landscapers,” Suppes said. “The program was wildly successful out of the gate.”
Mike Seyler, an Esperanza teacher who accompanies the students to South Coast REC, has seen firsthand the positive impacts of the partnership. He said one student – who at first balked at the idea of being outside, getting dirty and performing physical labor – eventually grew to like the work and took great pride in pulling carrots from the ground and sharing them with his family.
“To physically actually ‘see' the work you did – they don't always get to do that,” Seyler said. “It was cool to see someone, who didn't necessarily like being outdoors, really enjoy it now.”
The change of pace – and place – was especially beneficial for one young woman at Esperanza. Bueche said the nature of the work and the setting helped the student grow socially, as she relished the teamwork and camaraderie needed to accomplish their goals on the farm.
“We really saw a different person come out through her experiences there – she felt more self-confident; she was more personable with people; she was talking more,” said Bueche, who added that she has leveraged the skills she gained into a paid work-based learning experience with a local retailer.
Students bring produce to school, community
All students benefit from Esperanza's partnership with South Coast REC, as surplus produce from the center's fields is donated to make healthy school lunches. In addition, students use REC-grown fruits and vegetables at their monthly pop-up restaurant, where they hone skills in preparing and serving a three-course meal.
Their peers, who harvested the produce, derive immense satisfaction from seeing the fruits of their labor go directly to the school.
“They're able to enjoy eating the stuff that they're working for,” Seyler said. “And then they see everyone else enjoying it, and I think that really translates well for these guys.”
The students also played a prominent role in an avocado sale last summer, for which they picked 2,000 pounds of produce, bagged the fruit in 10-pound bags and then distributed preorders to the public from a stand at South Coast REC. Proceeds from the event were used to purchase farm tools, shirts and other gear.
“It was an incredible success – everyone loved the avocados,” Bueche said. “The students loved it; the parents came out; community members supported it.”
Those successes illustrate the power of a strong partnership; the South Coast REC team, in fact, received the school's “Community Partner of the Year” Award for 2020-21, for persevering through the pandemic to deliver the beneficial programs for students.
Over the last two years, Suppes and Bueche – through a lot of creativity and some trial and error – have sketched a roadmap for growing productive relationships between similar organizations and adult transition programs. And after presenting those results to colleagues, other local school districts and nonprofits such as Goodwill and My Day Counts have contacted South Coast REC to provide similar experiences for community members.