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People with special needs getting jobs, growing through farm program

KIRKLAND – It’s harvest season for much more than crops at Walnut Grove Vocational Farm.

Jake Hickey, 22, of Sycamore spent Friday morning picking, processing and packaging carrots, herbs, butter crunch lettuce and more.

He’s one of four participants in a one-on-one program at the farm, 33600 Pearl St., Kirkland, that trains people with special needs on virtually every step of producing produce. Three of them, Jake included, have grown by leaps and bounds, so much that they’ve been hired at Klein’s Quality Produce in Burlington.

“I don’t even think Mr. Klein realizes the opportunity he just gave three individuals,” said Heather Edwards, director of the vocational program. “A lot of places won’t hire them.”

Moments after a tour of the facility, during which the three were hired, Edwards called Dan Kenney, executive director of the DeKalb County Community Gardens.

“I was on the phone immediately after with Dan, saying, ‘I’ve got some great news! He’s hiring them. He’s taking all three!’ It was awesome,” Edwards said.

There’s room for more success stories. The last session of the year just got underway, but there’s room for a couple more participants, Edwards said. Those interested can apply online at, and it takes a couple of weeks to be approved for the free program.

The vocational farm launched last spring and has about 50 participants, most of whom go to the farm through transition programs at DeKalb County high schools.

The one-on-one program was tacked on in March, and keys on individuals, such as Hickey, who’ve turned 22 and are no longer eligible for public education.

Hickey worked at the farm through Sycamore High’s Life School program, but he said his mom, Jodie Hickey, was in his ear about not getting lazy once he was done with school.

He’s solidly built. Funny. Ambitious. Mom would like it to stay that way.

“When I’m out of high school, my mom said I need to stay busy,” Jake Hickey said while harvesting carrots. “Less video, less TV, less chilling out.”

He started at Klein’s this week and works there every Monday and Wednesday, and also works at Energym in Sycamore.

“It’s kind of tiring, but I’ll be OK,” he said. “Working makes me feel happy. Proud.”

He said working also helps him learn to cope when he gets frustrated with a challenging task.

“It helps me not get mad,” he said.

All those carrots he harvested got packed into Boxes of Hope for the program’s Community Supported Agriculture. Members who sign up for CSA can get fresh veggies from the farm each week, every other week or tailor a plan to their needs.

The farm relies on those sales, donations and community groups such as the DeKalb County Farm Bureau, DeKalb County Community Foundation, Doug and Lynn Roberts Family Foundation and the DeKalb County Mental Health Board to keep running.

Edwards said Klein’s is one of several employers the vocational farm is working with, since empowering folks with special needs is top priority.

“It’s wonderful seeing the whole experience,” she said. “You see the joy, the happiness when they come out and see what they planted mature into a plant, and they actually get to harvest it.”

Kenney, a retired teacher, said the program has been eye-opening for him, too.

“Even though I was a teacher, I still didn’t know there was such a need out there,” he said. “A woman told me once her son gets out of high school, it’s like falling off a cliff. This is such a great resource.”

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