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Gardening skills blossom at GrowWorks

Black Hills Works is always seeking to customize employment opportunities for people supported. A new social enterprise venture, GrowWorks, is in direct response to an interest in gardening that people supported have asked for—while also providing a new service to Rapid City.

In 2015, Black Hills Works received a $100,000 SourceAmerica Ideas to Work Fund Grant to fund innovative projects that create jobs for people with disabilities, in this case hydroponic gardening. With the grant and support from donors in the region, Black Hills Works created GrowWorks to provide chemical and pesticide free, fresh, and locally-grown produce to customers in the surrounding area while employing, training and mentoring people with disabilities.

Eight people supported by Black Hills Works are currently working at GrowWorks and more will be on the job by fall. They are assisting with planting, caring for, harvesting, packaging, and delivering fresh vegetables to local customers. Donald Oliver has been with GrowWorks since it began in 2016. He started with seeding, but GrowWorks Master Grower Lissa Marotz said Oliver is always willing to take on something new. He now handles a variety of other tasks, including transplanting and bagging lettuce. “He likes to come to work and he stays busy.”

This spring, that became even easier for Oliver, who uses a wheelchair. Boxelder Job Corps volunteered at GrowWorks, and along with digging and placing water tanks into the ground, they also graded the ground and gravel, then framed the paths and put pavers down, creating wheelchair accessible paths. Oliver and others who use wheelchairs can now access both sides of the double bay greenhouse to transplant and harvest produce. The walkways have already made a difference. Oliver was recently able to successfully transplant the romaine crop completely unassisted.

For now, all the produce grown by GrowWorks gardeners is purchased as quickly as it is ready by Rapid City Regional Hospital and BakeWorks, the Black Hills Works bakery. The harvest includes 100 heads of lettuce of various varieties every week, along with a variety of tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers, and micro-greens. PJ (Patricia Jo) Meredith, a person supported, delivers the produce, supplying vegetables to Rapid City Regional Hospital as needed. Eventually GrowWorks will be supplying other customers as well.

Regional Health Executive Chef, Scott Brinker, said GrowWorks is a perfect fit for the hospital. Because patients may have compromised immune systems, he purchases hydroponic greens to avoid the bugs and dirt that may be found on traditionally-grown produce. And, he says the quality is exceptional. “GrowWorks has the best produce I’ve seen as far as the green stuff goes. I’d buy it all from them if they could produce it.”

Brinker said others at Regional Health have noticed the difference in produce. “You can hear people say, ‘Look, it’s from Black Hills Works.’ When I put their stuff out, salad bar sales go through the roof.”

For Lissa Marotz, her position at Black Hills Works new hydroponic greenhouse is like coming full circle. She has degrees in horticulture, landscape and design, and urban forestry and she started her career working in a greenhouse. Since 1993, she has been working at Black Hills Works—most recently as a service coordinator.

When GrowWorks opened, she was able to combine both her education and her experience supporting people with disabilities as GrowWorks’ master grower. And, supporting them in their work at the greenhouse requires both skill sets because each employee has different abilities.

One of the people Marotz supported for years in her former role as service coordinator is even employed at GrowWorks because she encouraged her to give it a try. Gywn Whitmore assists with transplanting as well as a variety of other tasks at GrowWorks. “If I’m working on a project, she’s my gopher,” Marotz said.

Bringing the two careers together is a perfect fit. “If I could plant something every day and grow it, that would be ideal,” Marotz added. It adds to her enjoyment that the people she supports share her love of gardening. “It’s interesting to get these guys going. They all seem to enjoy it.”

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