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Sunday, May 26, 2024
The Observer

Garden program employs autistic individuals

The power of entrepreneurship has planted a new business in the local South Bend community called The Green Bridge Growers (GBG). The small business, co-founded by Saint Mary's Justice Education professor Jan Pilarski, will sell local produce and offer employment to autistic individuals.

Pilarski said she was personally affected by the hardships of autism when her son was unable to obtain a full-time job after graduating college. After witnessing others like her son, she began to see a social justice issue.

"They are strong employees. The skills and opportunities for those with autism are not being used on the job," Pilarski said.

Innovation was needed to solve the problem, so Pilarski said she and her son decided to take action. Pilarski's interest in sustainability and her son's experience in organic farming provided the first step in creating GBG, she said.

In collaboration with Notre Dame's Science and Engineering Meet Business, Entrepreneurship and Innovation master's program, the GBG team began researching adequate and productive farming methods.

Pilarski said GBG uses aquaponics, a different agricultural method in which growth must be maintained and monitored on a daily basis.

"Aquaponics saves on hard labor," she said. "It helps those with autism to work at the same level without creating physical stress on their bodies."

Typical farming tasks will be performed by the workers, who will seed the plants, transfer them as they grow and test them, she said. The system also requires precision and attention during inspection.

In collaboration with the local community, Pilarski said GBG will be partnering with Hannah and Friends, a non-profit organization former by former Irish head coach Charlie Weis supporting and improving the lives of those with special needs. GBG will be adding a greenhouse to Hannah and Friends as a prototype, she said. This will provide an opportunity to test energy efficiency and growing methods while training autistic employees who are autistic, she said. GBG plans to build three 2,000 square foot greenhouses in the next three years.

"We look forward to the expertise that Green Bridge will share with our staff and participants, teaching us to maintain the aquaponics system and creating hands-on learning opportunities for our participants" Katie Teitgen, staff member at Hannah and Friends, said.

GBG is working on the construction of the prototype and will start with the instillation in May, according to Pilarski. The greenhouse will be completed by this summer and all proceeds will support further development of the greenhouse and other day program activities.

Contact ChristinKloski at