Writer | Tracy Donohue
Photo | New Growth Project
Building Community: New Growth Project
In a community, those who feel passionate about a social cause and have a common purpose will often band together to create change. This is happening in the city of Rockford with the recent launch of New Growth Project. The nonprofit organization was founded by Christine O’Driscoll and Carly Van Duinen who combined their shared passions of creating inclusive jobs for neurodiverse individuals and growing nourishing vegetables to create a unique farm environment that positively impacts the surrounding community.
According to O’Driscoll, a recent study in Kent County indicated that 81% of individuals with cognitive differences are unemployed. As a parent of a neurodiverse adult, she discovered there was a void in inclusive job opportunities for this population. Van Duinen, who had worked with individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) when she lived in Colorado, had the lifelong dream to use her experience to help address this need.
“Raising someone with neurodiversity is not easy,” O’Driscoll explains. “For many of these individuals, this lack of opportunity can lead to isolation, anxiety, no sense of purpose or direction, as well as a lack of confidence and community connections. As a parent, sometimes you just have to find the right people and create the opportunity yourself. We looked at different models and landed on farming. It’s a calming environment that allows for learning and there are many jobs for people who want independence and meaning in their lives.”
Tapping their collective personal and professional experiences, the pair purchased the 20-acre farm in late summer 2021 and launched New Growth Project last year with a mission of “Farm. Work. Belong.” as an effort to make everyone feel like they are someone.
The organization focuses on cultivating job opportunities through the art of sustainable farming for workers who are often disregarded in the job market. The farm offers inclusive job and learning opportunities, community events and a farm market that sells fresh produce, flower bouquets and gift items.
Through the farm’s job coaching and peer mentoring program, individuals are met at their current skill level and are viewed through the lens of their strengths, not their deficits. They are given jobs in which they can experience success, learn new skills, gain confidence and become a part of the community.
“So many jobs in farming build skills, relationships and stories shared — a real sense of meaning, belonging and community,” O’Driscoll says. “Our goal is to develop skills on the farm that can also be used to work at jobs elsewhere in the community since, at this point, we only have a certain number of hours we can afford to pay employees.”
From planting seeds to harvesting and packaging, there are many work experiences on the farm for both employees and volunteers. The farm store offers opportunities to learn skills such as cleaning, packaging and labeling while selling the farm’s produce and specialty items such as organic soy candles, goat milk soap and gift boxes containing farm and local products. Community interactions on the farm help individuals build confidence and connectedness while the gift items help provide year-round job opportunities.
Rockford and the surrounding community have embraced New Growth Project’s mission by purchasing the farm’s products, membership programs, providing donations and sharing their story. The farm also offers rewarding volunteer opportunities to learn about farming, work with individuals with neurodiversity and discover how to make everybody feel like somebody.
“This is a giving and hard-working community that appreciates local products and philanthropy,” O’Driscoll says. “Our passion stems from doing what’s right. Everyone should have the opportunity to learn, work, belong and be successful. Knowing in your heart this farm will make a difference to so many keeps us going during the hard times. The positive ripples affect not only individuals, but their families, employers and the entire community. We are still learning but have big plans for the future.”