- Greg Masucci opened a farm program four years ago that employs intellectually and developmentally disabled teens and young adults as growers.
- Nationwide, 80 percent of people with intellectual disabilities are unemployed. Masucci has been able to add more workers during the pandemic because of the added needs of local food banks.
- The program builds self-esteem and job skills among growers, who sometimes move on to other career paths.
Every morning at 7:40, Ian Rodgers is ready for his parents to take him to his job about a 15-minute drive from his home, at a 24-acre working vegetable farm known as A Farm Less Ordinary. Rogers, 24, has autism, and has worked there for the past two years performing tasks like planting seeds, harvesting produce, and even serving as a spokesperson for the farm. “He loves going there, even when it’s 100 degrees out,” says his mother, Jody. “He will tell you he’s a farmer, but the funny thing is, he will not eat vegetables at all, not a single one.”
For many people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (ID/DD), the COVID-19 crisis hit especially hard. Schools and other support programs that the community heavily depended on suddenly closed. With nowhere else to go, special needs teens and young adults stayed home, becoming socially isolated and requiring greater supervision from their parents or caregivers. “These folks really depend on a routine much more than you and I,” says REALTOR® Greg Masucci. “They have a lot of challenges with the loss of that routine. They experience regressions, they lose skill sets, and that can lead to some challenging behaviors. And the parents or caregivers don’t get any kind of break at all.”
Masucci and his wife, Maya Wechsler, were in a fortunate position to be able to offset these difficulties for some families. Four years ago, they founded A Farm Less Ordinary in rural Bluemont, Va., which provides employment to teens and young adults, including Ian, with special needs in a place where they are safe, celebrated, and understood.
Because the farm was considered an “essential operation” in their state and its fields and greenhouses made social distancing relatively easy, Masucci brought their employees in to start the growing season in March, much earlier than usual, and even hired extra workers at a time when other businesses were cutting back because of COVID-19. AFLO’s growers got a jump on preparing early-spring crops.
When School Is No Longer an Option
Between the original 24-acre farm in Bluemont and a second location of 3 acres in more suburban Leesburg (added in 2019), AFLO now employs about 18 young adults, up from 16 prior to the pandemic. The Leesburg site opened last year and is being leased from a family that had farmland to spare. They grow vegetables from broccoli to zucchini using organic methods, then distribute them to farmer’s markets and the farm’s community supported agriculture subscribers. They also have goats for their milk and chickens for their eggs. The workers are paid minimum wage or higher per hour by the nonprofit farm program, and often receive produce to take home to their families. AFLO also partners with area food banks, filling a need that has grown as COVID-19 increases the ranks of the unemployed.
The inspiration for the farm came from Greg and Maya’s son, Max, who has autism and is nonverbal. Hoping to give their son a private, open space in which to explore and thrive, the family purchased the farm in Bluemont in 2014 when Max was 7 and relocated from Washington, D.C. Greg and Maya had advocated for improvements to the city’s special education system and wanted to continue serving the ID/DD community in their new home. They soon realized that the extraordinarily high unemployment rate among special needs adults was an issue they could address and that their farm could help others like Max thrive, too. “Eighty percent of the ID/DD community is unemployed. That was true well before COVID,” explains Masucci. According to a survey by the Human Services Research Institute and the National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disabilities Services, only 19 percent of special needs adults held paid jobs in 2019.
“It’s always hard for young adults with special needs,” says Valérie Beaudoin, a member of AFLO’s board of directors. “They can go to school until they’re 22, and then the education system stops. They often end up with nothing to do but stay home on the sofa.”
The resulting social isolation leads to increased rates of obesity, depression, hypertension, and suicide. “It’s a huge drain on morale to not be doing anything,” Beaudoin says. “That’s why we’re here—to give them a job and make them feel valued by their community.”
“Society largely marginalizes these folks, but they have so much to contribute. They want to contribute and feel productive. That feeling should never be underestimated.” —Greg Masucci
Skills for a Lifetime
Because the majority of AFLO’s growers have had few opportunities to develop job skills, the first task they learn is to plant seeds in trays. “If you’ve been told all your life that ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do that’ because of your disability, that leaves an indelible impression and they have no confidence in their own abilities,” says Masucci. “We have to build their manual dexterity and physical stamina, but the most important thing we have to build is their confidence.
Once they learn to plant seeds, the growers learn to care for the plants, harvest the produce, and help sell it at farmer’s markets. “There’s something magical about the whole process. It feeds their desire to contribute, and feel like they’re part of something,” Masucci finds. “Society largely marginalizes these folks, but they have so much to contribute. They want to contribute and feel productive. That feeling should never be underestimated.”
The farm also sets broader performance goals for its growers. Workers are expected to call in if they’re running late; they learn how to participate effectively in meetings; and they development project management skills—all of which help them become more marketable for other employers. “There are all these rules that people take for granted [in the workplace], that they were never really taught,” explains Masucci. “We consider it a huge success when people get another job outside our farm.”
Recently the farm has begun producing jams, pickles, and pesto as a way to provide year-round employment opportunities for some of the growers. “The seasonality to farming prevents it from being the perfect answer to this problem,” Masucci says. “So we started making finished goods. We teach people kitchen skills—how to make foods in a proper, hygienic way and ensure all cleanliness standards are met. Those skills are in high demand, and the hope is that the growers will get hired in the hospitality and food processing industries.”
Jody Rodgers, Ian’s mother, sees a remarkable difference in her son’s self-esteem since he started working at the farm. “Everyone needs to have some sort of job, and you need to be respected and appreciated. For many of us who are not on the autism spectrum, it’s easy for us to remember becoming an adult, getting a job, and going off to your thing. What Greg and Maya have given him is the ability to have that experience like anyone else.”
The Desire to Help People
Holding real estate licenses in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia, Masucci works as a sales associate for two brokerages that understand and accommodate his devotion to AFLO: Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Washington, D.C., and, closer to home, Atoka Properties in Purcellville, Virginia.
He sees similarities between his real estate career and AFLO. “I work with a lot of first-time home buyers, and I really love being able to guide them through what they see as a daunting, intimidating process. Just as it is with AFLO, real estate is all about helping people.”
Masucci devotes 20 to 25 hours per week towards furthering AFLO’s mission, taking on a variety of roles. “He does everything. He’s the farm engineer, so any construction project, anything that has to do with building. He goes out to many groups and gets people to become supporters,” adds Beaudoin. “He works so many hours for the farm each week—it’s incredible that he has so much energy.”
“Fortunately, I don’t need much sleep,” Masucci says with a laugh. “But when you see a problem and think you can help, you have to just do it. You’ll get rewards back that you don’t get with a paycheck. It’s the smiles you get, the letter from someone whose life you’ve impacted in a positive way. You can’t put a price on that, and that’s what’s so fulfilling.”