Things are growing at Legacy Farms. And it’s not just beautiful beets and fabulous flowers. The nonprofit is on a mission to build confidence and job skills in neurodiverse teens and young adults.
The Leesburg-based nonprofit was launched in 2012 by a group of parents and teachers to help neurodiverse students transition from school to the workforce. In recent years, it has transitioned from a job skills program to a mentor apprentice program that focuses on creating foundations for all kinds of employment.
“We’re serving as a bridge between the therapeutic and educational environments and a job out in the world where the employer may not know anything about neurodiversity,” said Legacy Farms Executive Director Laurie Young.
Legacy Farms now operates a vegetable garden at Temple Hall Regional Park and a new flower garden at Fabbioli Cellars just down the road north of Leesburg. Using a mentor/paid apprentice model, the program offers flower and culinary CSAs. The program teams up neurodiverse young people with agricultural experts and other mentors with a background in occupational therapy and special education to learn to plant, cultivate, market, and sell agricultural products.
For Young and her team, teaching valuable agricultural and entrepreneurial job skills is an important part of the program but is secondary to fostering skills and self-knowledge that participants can take with them to any job environment.
“[Apprentices] need that space to learn more about themselves and find out what they want to do and gain confidence in their skillset and their ability to communicate their particular areas of talent or particular areas of need when they go out into the workforce,” Young said.
Using moments of mindfulness throughout the day, apprentices learn skills for self-regulation and navigating a work environment.
“We do teach skills but the way we look at it that’s secondary,” Young said. “We really want to work on the foundation which is that when you’re in a calm and organized and alert state, it’s much easier to learn a skill. We think that the ability to self-regulate and say who you are and what you need will put everyone in a position to go out and learn more skills in different types of jobs.”
On a recent beautiful Thursday morning, Caleb Dickey was at the Legacy Farms flower garden while his brother Xavier worked at the vegetable garden.
Both of the Dickey brothers are rising seniors at Loudoun County High School. Caleb said that like many teens, he was craving the structure of a summer job.
“We’ve been using this time to be more productive. During the pandemic there was a lot of downtime. It’s helped us kind of get structure,” Dickey said. “My goal was problem solving and [the program] helped me with that.”
Caleb is planning to go to college and views his Legacy Farms experience as a résumé builder, but more importantly as a positive and supportive work environment.
“The people here are very kind. Even though we work hard, we don’t even realize we’re working half the time because we connect so well together,” Caleb said.
The program also focuses on developing leadership skills with apprentices often becoming mentors of sorts for other young people.
Ethan Roe of Reston also is an apprentice at the Fabbioli site. Having a chance to work outside is a plus, but the leadership skills are also key, with a focus on “being able to get direction and follow through with it and finding ways to take initiative.”
Young said Legacy Farms apprentices include people on the autism spectrum and individuals with severe ADHD and anxiety, traumatic brain injury and other diagnoses. But the team uses the word neurodiversity to focus on the talents and unique abilities of team members.
“The reason we very consciously use the term neurodiversity is because we feel it’s an empowering word,” Young said.
And those apprentices get support from both neurodiverse and neurotypical mentors.
Leah Foster, who runs the Fleur de Leah flower design business, is a mentor at the Fabbioli garden, where she helps apprentices create bouquets for Legacy Farms sold-out Legacy Blooms CSA program. The program delivers 30 bouquets a week to members who pick up at local businesses in Leesburg, Ashburn and Reston.
“I’ve learned a ton and I love working with the young people,” Foster said.
Ian Shanholtz, owner of Shanholtz Farm and Gardens near Hillsboro, is a mentor at the Temple Hall garden, where he passes on his trade secrets to young people at Legacy Farms’ bountiful vegetable garden.
“This is a great fit for me and I jumped in with both feet,” said Shanholtz, who is also neurodiverse.
Tuesdays and Thursdays are bustling at both gardens, with Young and a team of apprentices working at the flower garden and Legacy Farms Operations Manager Billie Jo Bevan and her team at the veggie operation.
In addition to agricultural experience, apprentices can also specialize in areas of interest including product assembly, sales and delivery and design. Rachel Ramos, a rising senior at LCHS, wasn’t initially interested in an agriculture-focused program but was drawn into a Legacy Farms apprenticeship by her love of art. Ramos created a vibrant wooden sign at the vegetable farm with fellow apprentice Quinn Demcsak and designed colorful garden markers for both farms. Photography apprentice Heather Overheu helps document her teammates’ work and provide content for the program’s marketing efforts.
For Young, helping young people identify and cultivate their strengths and talents is as important as cultivating produce.
“We’re a community of equals—we’re all there getting the job done together,” Young said.
For more information about Legacy Farms, including applications for apprenticeships and mentorships and flower and culinary CSAs, go to legacyfarmsvirginia.org.