Ability in Bloom: Partnership offers job opportunities … and plenty of flowers

By Eric Banford
Tompkins Weekly

Photo Provided
Ability in Bloom program participants — Rick, Lauren and Chris — work in a garden.

For a group of local residents, the opportunity to tend to a garden has resulted in much more than beautiful flowers – it’s the chance to have a meaningful work experience in their community.

Ability in Bloom is a horticulture-based social enterprise of Challenge Workforce Solutions, a local non-profit that helps people with barriers to employment find jobs, and its evolution has turned it from something of a hobby into a business opportunity.
“We started this program as just recreational gardening, which then grew into participation in the Community Beautification Program,” said Glen Robertson, coordinator of Ability in Bloom. “We got a space at the Ithaca Community Garden and started donating our flowers to the Beechtree nursing home.”
Starting three years ago, there’s been a push to close work centers where people with disabilities are working only with adults who also have disabilities, according to Robertson.
“We got a big grant to help us come up with programs to move people out more into the community,” he said, “so we decided to create a business out of the skills and interests we’d developed flower gardening.”

Photo Provided
Chris plants some seeds for Ability in Bloom.

Thus, Ability in Bloom was born.
For the first two years they sold flowers under the AIB name, with the goal of developing work skills and a means for making income.
“What I found was that it’s really hard at our scale to generate enough income to make our goals happen,” said Robertson.

A partnership was formed with the Groundswell Incubator Farm to try to overcome this challenge.
“The Groundswell Incubator Farm has been a vital resource for helping us expand our production beyond a hobby level,” said Robertson. “With the help of Groundswell staff and the trainings they have offered, we learned that we could successfully grow a product together as a team.
“Working with Groundswell helped me learn, as the leader of the program, what my workers are truly capable of and how to help them utilize their abilities to produce a quality product,” he added.

This year, AIB teamed up with Take Your Pick Flower Farm and owner Linda Van Apeldoorn. Ability in Bloom program participants have been working at Take Your Pick’s “U-Pick” garden, prepping flower beds, weeding, and putting in new beds. Going forward, they will likely help with the Farmers Market booth at Triphammer every Friday, according to Van Apeldoorn, and help with the flower CSA and events.

Photo Provided
Some of the Take Your Pick Flower Farm bouqets available from its CSA.

The seeds of the partnership were sown during the drought last summer when Ability in Bloom didn’t have enough flowers to meet their orders. Take Your Pick was able to fill the gap, and from this initial collaboration a natural partnership blossomed.
“We started talking about how we could do orders together or work together, and it just snowballed from there,” reflected Van Apeldoorn. “We figured the best approach would be to have them come out to my farm with people interested in gardening and we’d put them to work.
“It’s been working out fabulously well,” she added. “We’re getting the kinks worked out and it’s going to be a great relationship. Everyone who’s come out have been super hard workers.”

One of the participants, Lillian, had owned a catering business before she experienced some barriers to employment, according to Robertson.
“She’s very skilled in flower arranging,” he said, “so she has been a natural fit for this program.”
Van Apeldoorn concurs.
“Lillian is super talented at putting arrangements together,” she said. “She and I have done a couple of events together, and I’m hoping that will continue as I do flowers for weddings and events.”

Robertson noted that one participant, Adam, is a skilled artist whose paintings highlight the flowers grown by the program.
“We’re using Ability in Bloom as a way to promote his art,” he said. “He makes cards out of his paintings and we’re going to start selling them at the Farmers Market and hopefully other outlets.”

Photo Provided
AIB program participant Adam, whose paintings often draw inspiration from the flowers, holds a peony at the garden.

Program participants enjoy the work most of the time, Robertson said, joking that “they don’t necessarily like working on the really hot days.”
“It’s a good opportunity to learn your stamina, to buckle down and get done what you need to do,” he said. “This is a good proving ground that could translate to actual work in the community.”

Another aspect of the program has involved high school students with barriers to employment for the summer.
“We had two last summer and it looks like we’ll be able to do that again this summer,” said Robertson. “It’s great for the students because they learn a lot of teamwork skills.
“They’re learning how to be good mentors and seeing good modeling from other people in the program,” he added.

For Van Apeldoorn, the partnership with Challenge has been a perfect way to expand and extend her business, to keep up with the many required chores, and has allowed her to focus more on marketing her business, which previously she had little time for. And it’s provided fulfilling work for the Ability in Bloom crew. Hopefully it’s a partnership that will continue to grow.

AIB is looking for another growing space to expand their business, and would like to partner with an organization like a nursing home or school that has gardening space available.
“We’d love to grow flowers for our program and for their benefit as well,” concluded Robertson.

For more information about Ability in Bloom, visit AbilityInBloom.com.