Training Program Aims to Help People with Disabilities Find Jobs

By Christine Valdez
Web Production Assistant

Edible Garden employees Rick Pinto, Chris Chappetta (left) and Joe Chiappetta (right) pose with Abilities trainee Fred Kulick (center in gray). Photo Courtesy of Evan Nison.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was created to prohibit employers from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities. Over the years, training programs and job opportunities have been created and in New Jersey two organizations have partnered to create more opportunities for people with disabilities.

Recently Edible Garden and Abilities of Northwest Jersey decided to partner up and created a job training program that would help create job opportunities for individuals with disabilities. Through the partnership, the training program was able to begin in June and has been teaching applicants techniques that they can use outside of the training program and in other career opportunities.

Through The Edible Garden/Sustain Abilities Hydroponic and Greenhouse Training program, participants have been exposed to modern and food safety management systems to prepare them for work within the agricultural industry. According to Ken VandeVrede, President of Edible Garden, the program began with Edible Garden Director of Quality Control Joe Chiappetta presenting the idea.

“The idea fully developed when Sue Zukoski from Abilities of Northwest Jersey reached out to Joe at the time, the Edible Garden Open House in April 2014,” said VandeVrede. “Once they met and discussed the details of a possible job training program, it took only about a month to put all of the pieces in place and launch the program with great success.”

Zukoski says that she had been looking to start a hydroponic program — a method used to grow plants in water rather than soil — within the Abilities facility, but plans started to come together at the Edible Garden open house.

“I was looking to start a hydroponics program in our facility but information about Edible Garden in Belvidere, which is in one of our local towns, attended an open house that they had and was at the right place at the right time,” said Zukoski. “Talking with them in person and Joe was certainly very open minded about forming this partnership and creating this opportunity for people with disabilities to learn hydroponic food safety in their facility.”

The Edible Garden/Sustain Abilities Hydroponic and Greenhouse Training Program was created as a four-week rotating training program. Both Edible Garden and Abilities worked together over two months to create the final details of the program.

The four-week training program has been taking place at Abilities of Southwest Jersey’s facility with offsite training. Following the offsite training, participants then begin the hydroponic training at Edible Garden’s facility in Belvidere.

The Edible Garden/Sustain Abilities Hydroponic and Greenhouse training program recently completed training the first batch of participants. According to Zukoski, four individuals participated and learned various aspects of food safety handling.

“The first training program there was four individuals that participated, so we’re doing groups of four,” said Zukoski.

According to VandeVrede, participants in the program partake in various aspects of the agricultural industry. Each day requires learning a new skill on a rotating schedule.

As the training program progresses, Zukoski says that information on the program will be shared with local school districts in hopes that students with disabilities consider transitioning into the industry after graduation.

Now that the program has completed one full four-week training session, VandeVrede says that the program has been a success.

“It has been an overwhelming success and Edible Garden is excited to grow the program here in Belvidere and at each one of our other facilities,” said VandeVrede.

Zukoski says that while participants in the program learn about the various aspects of the agricultural industry, participants are also getting paid as they learn.

“So I had wrote the grant that allowed us to pay wages while they’re learning skills or exploring careers in the community,” said Zukoski. “Right now because of our grant we are able to pay our trainees wages, which is always nice, to learn a skill and get paid at the same time.”

Edible Garden Hydroponic/Greenhouse skill training graduate Fred Kulick. Photo Courtesy of Evan Nison.

Although the grant may not last forever, Zukoski says that she is hoping that additional funding will be available in the future to continue paying trainees.

As the training program continues to grow, VandeVrede says that Edible Garden is open to helping other companies with a similar process.

“We are also completely open to helping any other company interested in replicating our success,” he said.

At the conclusion of the four-week program, participants are then awarded a certificate of completion. Along with the certificate, participants also receive a recommendation letter from Chiappetta.

Participants also have the opportunity to submit an application for employment to Edible Garden upon completion of the training program.

The training program is open to New Jersey residents with disabilities. Zukoski says that individuals interested in the program should contact Abilities of Northwest Jersey.

According to VandeVrede, Edible Garden has been working on details to create a program for veterans similar to the disabilities program.

“Our whole mission is we grow local, we ship local, we give back to the local community with food,” said VandeVrede. “I want to incorporate local disabilities and local people in society back into our community so that’s kind of the story.”

With one training session complete and with another one currently underway, both Edible Garden and Abilities of Northwest Jersey have received positive feedback about the program.

“The four individuals that went through this training couldn’t be more excited,” Zukoski said. “The response has been very positive.”

“They actually love it,” said VandeVrede. “They’re learning so much, they’re so excited, actually to come to work. It’s an absolutely amazing program.”