About 10 years ago, Ohioans Doug Sharp and his wife Julie Sharp decided to begin a nonprofit operation to train and employ young adults with autism to prepare them for the workforce.
Adults with autism often have difficulty finding and maintaining work, Doug Sharp says. “They struggle getting past the interview, and once they do get a job, they have difficulty maintaining it because of the social skills and communication skills that they haven’t developed,” he says.
In the United States, 55.1 percent of people with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) worked at all in the six years following high school, according to a 2012 study published in the American Academy of Pediatrics. In 2016, the unemployment rate for people with a disability in the United States was 10.5 percent, more than double the unemployment rate for people without a disability that year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In 2007, Doug, who works as vice president of sales effectiveness and operations at Grange Insurance Companies, and Julie, who works as a teacher at Oakstone Academy, a private school specializing in ASD, began drafting the concept of what would become Lettuce Work, a nonprofit that teaches high school students and young adults with autism to grow, harvest, wash, package and label lettuce. Doug is executive director of Lettuce Work, handling much of the business operations, and Julie is the program director and works alongside the employees.
After drafting a business plan, securing funding, buying property and constructing facilities, Lettuce Work built its New Albany greenhouse in 2014, Doug says. It subsequently set up operations with retailers Kroger, Giant Eagle and independent grocery stores around the Columbus area. After testing out different lettuce varieties, including romaine production for manatees to consume at the Columbus Zoo, Lettuce Work found success with its salad blend. Its biggest success, though, has been seeing the young adults it employs adjust to, and progress in, a work environment.
Creating the calm
Living in a rural area outside of Columbus, Doug knew wanted to create a project that would support this demographic by getting adults with autism involved in agriculture in some form, so he reached out to Ohio State University Extension for guidance. The extension service suggested he include hydroponics in his operation and mentioned CropKing, a company that provides an option to purchase greenhouse structures and hydroponic equipment in a single package.
Lettuce Work purchased six gutter-connected greenhouse bays and hydroponic systems from CropKing — clean, quiet environments that Doug says create a therapeutic, calming effect for high schoolers and young adults who are sensitive to certain textures and sounds. “What we’ve seen in the greenhouse especially, where you have that white noise from the fans, is that they really respond well,” he says.
On a given day, Lettuce Work oversees the work of about six to 12 people on the autism spectrum, Doug says. The organization has hired a few staff members work in the greenhouse, including an experienced grower, as well as volunteers and a couple young men with autism who previously trained onsite during high school.
The work that the employees perform in the greenhouse varies depending on their abilities and interests, Doug says. Some of them stay for six months and then move onto another job, while others have been there several years.
Across the board, improvements are quantifiable, Doug says. “I’m just thinking of one young lady we’ve worked with for a couple years now — in labeling, for example, the clamshell containers,” Doug says. “When she was first brought in to us, she wasn’t able to complete any of those steps without prompting, and now she comes in, she works independently, and it’s an eight-step procedure that she can do on her own.” Other employees have teachers who have often seen them with their hands in their pockets, but at Lettuce Work, they are working as well as interacting with others.
A window into retail
Lettuce Work has plans to add on to its greenhouse and offer annual and perennial plants, and possibly add nursery stock outside as well, Doug says. It will add a flower shop on the property to allow its employees a work experience where they can interact with customers.
As it adds ornamental offerings, Lettuce Work won’t leave behind its namesake produce, Doug says. The operation has also had such a positive experience working with CropKing that it will use its gutter-connected greenhouses for the new areas, although they won’t be fitted with any hydroponic systems.
The plan is to become more financially self-sufficient, Doug says. Lettuce Work currently gets about a third of its revenue from its growing operation, and the other two-thirds comes from grants and donations from the state, foundations such as the Columbus Foundation and individual donors. In the future, he hopes to produce about 80 percent of revenue from the operation.
There’s a stigma that some people with autism might not be capable of working, but Doug says they make great workers and he would like to help change misperceptions. When he retires, he plans to dedicate more time to Lettuce Work. “It’s a labor of love,” he says.