The world's largest iron-framed greenhouse sits in Guilford, Connecticut, amid your typical suburban retail assortment--a Walmart, a Subway, a Bank of America with a drive-thru ATM. It houses New England's only rose farm, a unique operation called Roses for Autism.
Roses for Autism is, aptly, a hybrid, crossing social enterprise with therapy program. It has 21 staff--seven on the spectrum--as well as 38 "transitioning students," young people whose families (or the state of Connecticut) pay up to $30,000 annually for work experience and vocational training. Sales of flowers--roses, plus delphinium, dahlias, and spectacular double-petaled lilies--through its on-premises flower shop as well as wholesale customers like the online grocer FreshDirect bring in $400,000 a year, about a third of its annual budget. Donations and program fees cover the rest.
Trainees rotate through all parts of the operation, from working in the greenhouse to sorting roses to selling them in the shop upfront. When I visit, 20-year-old Adam is wrapping tea roses by the dozen. He tells me that he has learned how to "socialize. Make eye contact. Get along with your friends." He also surprised himself by loving the retail side of the operation. "I like to work with the customer," he says haltingly. "I feel comfortable."
Exposure to different tasks "allows them to take risks and be more independent than they otherwise would be," says Roses for Autism managing director Michelle Ouimette. "The environment allows for mistakes." This is crucial for students like Aaron, another 20-year-old, who arrived with fewer verbal skills and more uncontrolled behaviors. He's doing exercises on a PC when Ouimette gently interrupts to introduce me. He greets me before quickly turning back to the screen. "It took him a month to get him just to come in the building," she says after we leave the room. "We worked up to two days a week from a couple of hours."
In an outbuilding, one of Ouimette's colleagues is supervising set-up of a holiday pop-up shop stocked with donated ornaments and tchotchkes (Roses for Autism is trying to diversify its revenue streams). There, I meet Louis, a garrulous 22-year-old from New Haven who claims to have mastered wrapping flowers to the point of ennui. "It gets me mad sometimes. I don't want to do the boring things. But I'm learning how to be flexible," he says. "I'm still learning how to take constructive criticism. Before I got here, I was a bad kid. I wasn't listening at all." His goal: to be a mechanic. "I like to fix cars, and I'm good with my hands."
Outfits like Roses for Autism help compensate for what the famed autistic animal-science professor and writer Temple Grandin believes is unhelpful parental coddling. "Too many young people lack work skills," she says. "When I was 13, my mother got me a sewing job. When I was 15, I got kicked out of regular high school for fighting, because kids bullied me. The headmaster of my new school realized I needed work skills. So I worked on my aunt's ranch. I cleaned eight stalls every day. I fed the horses. If a horse kicked a hole in a wall, I fixed it."
In Grandin's view, the social side of work is crucial for youth on the spectrum. She hopes they'll have bosses like the one who intervened early in her career to tell her what not to do. "I criticized someone else's welding and said it looked like pigeon doo-doo," she recalls. Her supervisor said she'd have to apologize. "I said, 'These welds aren't very pretty.' He described to me the difference between construction welding and maintenance welding--and this was maintenance welding. Well, I wasn't going to go up to Whitey and tell him that his welding was wonderful, because it wasn't. But I did go up and apologize for the rude way I said it."
Programs such as Roses for Autism seek to provide such training. But as Ouimette notes, the operation's multiple bottom lines can sometimes compete with one another. This is one of the constant challenges of its hybrid model. "The ideas are wonderful, " she says, "but when you try to practically execute, it's different."
Lately, Ouimette has been trying to diversify the organization's income streams. For instance, there's an entire greenhouse that is currently unused; might a local farmer want to rent it to grow vegetables? And might that farmer be willing to hire some of her trainees? Usually, there aren't clear answers, just more questions--and more people than she can help. "When you try to mix business and human services," she says, "you have to accept that sometimes what's right for the business is wrong for the social mission and vice versa."