(VIDEO) The partnership between the Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Research and Wild Rabbit Farms, a local private garden, has allowed students in the center’s Transition Academy to give back to the community while gaining new skills and perspectives.
About a year and a half ago, Josh Molligan was completing landscaping work at Marisa Scheef's house in west Lubbock when she led him out back to an empty field and proposed a new project. Scheef wanted to plant a garden, and not just any garden, but a big one with a mix of flowers and any kind of vegetable that would grow in West Texas.
“Challenge accepted,” thought Molligan, a Texas Tech University plant and soil science alumnus. Soon after their conversation, Molligan began planting, getting help first from part-time workers Kade Todd and Texas Tech journalism major Timothy Martinelli, before adding another part-timer, Kaitlyn Sheek, a few months later. Known as “the Ks” around the garden, Todd and Sheek are both graduates from the Transition Academy in the Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Research, housed within the College of Education at Texas Tech.
Now, just a year and half later, the garden, dubbed by the workers as “Wild Rabbit Farms,” has grown so large and yields so much produce that there's enough to give not just to friends and neighbors, but also organizations like Women's Protective Services and the South Plains Food Bank. In July, Scheef invited current students from the Transition Academy – a three-year program for high school graduates that emphasizes job, social, independent living and leadership skills – to help harvest and run a vegetable stand at the garden, with all of the proceeds going to the Burkhart Center.
This Saturday (Aug. 25), Wild Rabbit Farms and a group of Burkhart students will make their first appearance at the Lubbock Downtown Farmers Market, selling even more produce to benefit the Burkhart Center. Janice Magness, director of the Transition Academy, said working in the garden and at the vegetable stands gives her students the chance to broaden their perspectives on new opportunities and their own capabilities.
“Most of those kids had never picked anything growing in a garden in their life,” Magness said. “It's been a wonderful experience for all of our students and has given them another vision for something they might be interested in doing.”
Planting the seeds
The plot of land that eventually would become the Wild Rabbit Farms garden wasn't always bare. Scheef and her family had a small garden on the plot, but when her oldest son, Chris, graduated from college and began full-time employment, she didn't have anyone to help with the upkeep.
Scheef's youngest son, Alex, who is autistic and recently graduated from Frenship High School, attended Burkhart Summer Camps and Family Fun Days. It was during those visits that Scheef met Todd, who would become her first employee at the garden.
“You know when you meet someone and they're supposed to be a part of your life?” Scheef said. “There was just something special about Kade. So when he graduated and didn't have employment, I told Janice to send him over for an interview.”
Todd began working around the farm, helping with various tasks. A short while later, Scheef met Molligan through a friend and hired him to help with landscaping at her house.
When Scheef showed Molligan the plot of land, it was like a puzzle piece falling into perfect place.
“I wanted to do big things, and in came Josh, and here we go,” Scheef said. “His dream was to do a big garden. I had prayed for someone to build the garden, and Josh prayed for the space to do it. It was a God thing.”
Work in the garden began within just a couple of months.
“We plant all kinds of vegetables and some cover crops, and we also do some flowers,” Molligan said. “We plant any type of veggies that will grow, usually three or four varieties at a time. You name it, we've grown it.”
Molligan's efforts are really what made the garden what it is today, Scheef said.
“It's enormous, and bigger than I've ever had here,” she said. “Squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, okra, peas, beans. We had great greens early spring, kale and lettuce, cabbage, beets and turnips. Pretty much everything that will grow in West Texas, we grow.”
As the garden grew, so did the amount of work. Soon, Molligan had brought on long-time friend Martinelli to help. Martinelli, who had spent time traveling and volunteering on organic farms, quickly became Molligan's right-hand man.
“He's competent on the tractor, and he's picked up on all of the skills needed on the farm,” Molligan said. “When I'm away, he's the one who runs things.”
About six months after Molligan came on board, Magness reached out to Scheef and told her about Sheek, another graduate of the Transition Academy. Soon, Sheek joined the crew in the garden.
“One of the responsibilities is keeping up the trees, picking up trash along the tree rows,” Sheek said. “We have a few that we trim shooters off of the trees, which are basically like the little saplings coming out of the trunk. We hoe, we get rid of all the bad weeds, we basically harvest everything we grow.”
The best thing about the work, she said, is being outside.
“My favorite thing about it is it's not in a little office cubicle,” Sheek said. “I can't work in an office. I mean, I'd be driven insane. Here, I think I've gained quite a bit of plant skills, and a bit of flexibility.”
Scheef said Todd and Sheek each bring a unique set of skills to the farm.
“Katy can do some really amazing things, and so can Kade,” Scheef said. “They do a lot of weeding, mowing, trimming trees, cleaning. They keep the farm looking good and comfortable so we can enjoy it. We couldn't do it without Kade and Kaitlyn.”
Through their combined efforts, the small, blank patch Scheef first pointed out to Molligan has now grown to a blooming acre and a half. Molligan said Sheek and Todd are an integral part of the work done on the farm.
“They do so much for us. Without them, it wouldn't be near what it is,” Molligan said. “Almost everything out here, they've had a hand in. They've helped build some of these huge beds. It's all the small things and the big things. Katy has come pretty far in terms of tree maintenance – there are more than 200 she maintains. Kade is always in the background cleaning, and without him, things would be a mess. We're very fortunate for that, because it's one of those small things that could be overlooked.”
Everything harvested from the garden, usually between 400 and 500 pounds per week, is donated to friends, family and those in need.
“These vegetables can help the whole community, if we all pitch in and make that happen,” Scheef said. “Last summer, we donated vegetables to Women's Protective Services. This year, we did the food bank.”
When they began discussing other entities that could benefit from the garden, Scheef said the Burkhart Center was a natural fit. Working with Magness, they arranged for a group of students to help with the harvest in July and then sell the produce in a vegetable stand.
When the sale was done, the group had raised nearly $1,000 for the Burkhart Center.
A lasting impact
Everyone who works in the garden says the project is about more than just growing vegetables.
“This has taught Kade and Katy a lot of work skills they wouldn't get in other places,” Molligan said. “Determination, independence, leadership, things like that. We've been able to see both of them grow over the past two years, always challenging themselves, always overcoming and going to next thing – it builds a lot of characteristics. It's really hard work, so if you can work through a full day in West Texas heat, then you can do pretty much any job, I think.”
Magness said Scheef has made sure to treat Todd and Sheek like any other employee – they have staff meetings, work toward raises, receive evaluations and discuss ways to improve.
“This is all part of them learning how to take care of themselves and be independent,” Magness said. “And they have gained a world of independence. It's made both of them grow up and take care of their responsibilities.”
The partnership with the Transition Academy, which aims to help high school graduates on the autism spectrum successfully transition into higher education or competitive employment, is a way to expose the students to opportunities they may not have previously considered.
“They've loved going out there and picking the vegetables,” Magness said. “One of our students, we didn't even know they liked working outside and now wants to work in greenhouse or something similar.”
Molligan said he's gained just as much as everyone else at the farm.
“I never thought I would be doing this,” Molligan said. “I thought it was just a cool gig, and it's just been overwhelming. I had a lot of leaderships skills coming in and that's been fortunate, but this has given me more patience than I know what to do with. It's made me a better manager and has given me the ability to sit down and look at things through other people's perspectives. I've taken that into my everyday life. It's a beautiful thing.”
Scheef said she hopes everyone involved takes that same bit of pleasure and joy from the work they're doing at Wild Rabbit Farms. She said the work the Burkhart Center does is something she plans to continue to support in any way she can.
“The Burkhart Center has been a love for me and my family for forever,” Scheef said. “They've done tremendous things in this community for autism, and I just want to support every aspect of what they do. I know that it's money well spent on good, good people.”