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Farm employs autistic adults

Emilie Kefalas | Thursday, December 12, 2013

The national unemployment rate among autistic adults is 90 percent, a statistic not surprising for Jan Pilarski, former director of the justice education program at Saint Mary’s, whose autistic son, Chris Pilarski was let go of his job after only three months of employment despite his attainment of a college degree, she said.

“As a parent of a young adult with autism, I always knew that once our son, Chris, finished the end of his schooling that it was going to be a rough road,” Jan Pilarski said.

“There’s that unknown of wondering what will happen after that, because everything has been supportive up to that point. I guess I put my social justice hat on and looked at it broadly and structurally to say there really is a systemic problem. It’s chronic unemployment for these young people, and [I] just sat with it for a while to think what can we contribute to this and how can we address the problem.”   

Jan Pilarski subsequently founded Green Bridge Growers, an innovative social venture providing skill-matched employment for underserved young adults on the autism spectrum through an urban aquaponics farm, she said.   

“I knew it had to be something that was more entrepreneurial, because traditional employment wasn’t going to work,” she said.  
By combining Chris Pilarski’s interests in science and organic farming with the study of other types of plant growth, Jan Pilarski said she saw alternative ways that food was being grown sustainably. She and her son toured the country to see how his love of natural sciences could be applied in an autistic-friendly work environment, she said.  

“He enjoys the outdoors much more so,” Jan Pilarski said. “Even office work is to a degree fine, but he likes the hands-on work. He found himself really enjoying the science work, the minerals in the water and how to do testing of the water, so for him that was where all the dots got connected and enabled him to use his skills.”

Jan Pilarski said when she saw aquaponics in action for the first time three years ago, she made the connection between her son’s passion for environmental science and employment opportunities for autistic adults.  

“It fits very well, and we’ve taken it to others with autism,” she said. “It fits so well because you have to make sure the water has the proper chemistry pH levels, and people with autism really get into checking all that. They like to check things like the temperature of the water and the air [and] observe the fish and look at how they’re growing and doing. All of those different parts really accommodate the interest and skills of people with autism.”

Now in its second year, Green Bridge Growers launched a crowdfunding campaign Nov. 20 on Indiegogo with the goal to build their second next-stage commercial greenhouse, Jan Pilarski said.

“We have a clearly defined project on Indiegogo, which is to raise the funds for our aquaponics venture,” she said. “We have a prototype greenhouse with Hannah and Friends, and [we’re] working there with training and development with people in the venture.”

The project itself will create jobs for five young adults with autism and grow 45,000 pounds of vegetables each year, Jan Pilarski said.  

Because of her history as the Saint Mary’s social justice coordinator, Jan Pilarski said she was able to find the link between social justice and sustainable food.  

“Through the classes I teach at Saint Mary’s that emphasize social justice … we’ve looked at things relating to climate and our personal use of energy and kind of looking at it through how our consumption affects the environment in the class that I teach,” she said.

“Food and what we consume and how it’s grown – that all has an impact on the climate because of carbon outputs [and] also in terms of how sustainable we are. It fits in Catholic social thought as well.”

One of the key members of Jan Pilarski’s six-person team is Aisling Sheahan, a native of Ireland currently visiting the area for three months. For Sheahan, who majored in childhood studies and wrote her thesis on autism in Ireland, the link with autism fit perfectly with her blogging expertise, she said.  

“I think it’s great the way they’re helping out young adults with autism, because when I was doing my thesis, it’s just all about children,” Sheahan said.

“I’m reaching out to the autism bloggers, just to get mentioned under blogs as guest blogs, [and] blogging about their own experience with their child.  We’re going to try to make a difference for when they’re older, because I think autism parents just focus on the now.”

Jan Pilarski, who holds both Notre Dame undergraduate and master’s degrees, said she is hopeful the Saint Mary’s, Notre Dame, and South Bend communities will contribute to Green Bridge Growers’ campaign and become actively involved with the entrepreneurship’s mission.

“Partnerships with both Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame are wonderful and help us meet particular needs that we have as a venture,” she said.

Contact Emilie Kefalas at ekefal01@saintmarys.edu