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Local Column

Heimerman: Opportunities abound in DeKalb County

Jake Hickey, 22, of Sycamore, works with Walnut Grove Vocational Farm worker Meghan Chadra to bundle and tie fresh parsley Friday morning at the farm, 33600 Pearl St., Kirkland. Hickey just started a new job at Klein's Quality Produce in Burlington, thanks to the vocational program.
Jake Hickey, 22, of Sycamore, works with Walnut Grove Vocational Farm worker Meghan Chadra to bundle and tie fresh parsley Friday morning at the farm, 33600 Pearl St., Kirkland. Hickey just started a new job at Klein's Quality Produce in Burlington, thanks to the vocational program.

I was assigned homework last week. That felt weird.

As one of a couple of dozen students in the DeKalb Leadership Academy, at next month’s class, I need to give a three- to five-minute pitch to my classmates for a community project.

What makes it hard is there are so many initiatives going on in DeKalb County that are as effective as they are innovative. While I have a couple of ideas, I’ve been scratching my head a bit. So many great ideas already are in motion.

That also makes it easier. Watching programs flourish is pretty inspiring.

One of my favorites that I’ve had a chance to observe is the Walnut Grove Vocational Farm at 33600 Pearl St. in Kirkland. The DeKalb County Community Gardens planted a seed of thought last year: How about a program that teaches people with special needs about agriculture?

Now it’s far more than a sapling. It’s more like a small but rapidly growing tree.

More than 40 people are participating, the vast majority of them high schoolers with special needs who take part in transitional programs.

Here’s where things get really powerful. Four participants have turned 22 and are no longer eligible for public education. What do they do? Where do they go? How do they stay busy?

One burning question: How do they continue to not only feel but build self-worth?

We all want to feel as if we’re important, that the things we do matter, and people with special needs are no different.

Federal legislation long in the works kicked in a little more than a year ago, making it more difficult for those people to get work in sheltered workshops. The logic behind the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, we’re fed, is that people with special needs should be out in the community, working the same jobs as the rest of us.

If only it were that simple. Many of them would love to work those jobs, but simply can’t because of their limitations. Imagine if they’re forced to work a job they’re not qualified for, what that would do for anyone’s confidence – to try something at which you’re virtually guaranteed to fail.

WIOA has effectively barred people from gaining work at sheltered workshops, such as Opportunity House in Sycamore, until they’ve been screened to determine whether it suits their needs.

That screening must be done by a government agency. You can only imagine how quickly that process moves.

The Walnut Grove program is “an alternative to sheltered workshops,” said Dan Kenney, executive director of DeKalb County Community Gardens.

He said one parent compared their child aging out of school with falling off a cliff. In Kirkland, they can regain their footing. It’s a free program. Just fill out the application at dekalbgardens.org/walnut-grove.

In case you missed it, I was able to hang out at the farm with Jake Hickey, a recent Sycamore High School graduate, on Friday. He’s a fun guy with a great personality, and he recently turned 22, suddenly limiting his options.

He’s gotten dirt under his fingernails through the program, learned many skills and, recently, landed a job. How do I top that? Back to the drawing board.

• Christopher Heimerman is the Daily Chronicle’s news editor. Reach him at 815-756-4841, ext. 2221, or email cheimerman@shawmedia.com.

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