Sammy Leffe puttered contentedly through the mountain-framed fruit and vegetable garden at the Shalom Institute educational and retreat center in Malibu, his fists crammed with dried sticks.
As he approached a fenced-off corner of the garden, singing and chattering to himself, the young man in a black cowboy hat paused for a second, as if to take in the moment.
“Yay!” he exclaimed suddenly, before continuing his purposeful walk toward the growing compost heap.
It was hard to imagine that, just a few weeks ago, Leffe, 22, didn’t want to get his hands dirty, or even touch a weed, according to his caregiver Kiki Pietro, a life coach with the Creative Steps Adult Community Integration Program in Santa Monica. Because Leffe suffers from a variety of ailments, including autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and musculature issues, simple tasks like weeding a garden and bending to pick things up are difficult for him, she said.
But Leffe of Malibu, who cannot communicate verbally, has begun to push past some of his physical limitations since becoming one of five young adults with disabilities to join the Shalom Institute’s new Shemesh Organic Farm Fellows program, Pietro said. The program, which launched in September, provides employment training for adults with special needs, focusing on farm work, arts and crafts, and making and growing products for sale.
For Leffe, the program has helped him realize his own capacity for hard work while allowing him to spend time in a natural environment, Pietro said.
“He really hates dirt and dust, but here he just gets in the mud and … really just faces all of his OCD issues,” she said. “Here it’s nature and animals and he just loves it. … I think it centers him, it grounds him and it gives him that peace.”
Farm Fellows attend the program year-round two days a week, doing agricultural work at Shalom’s onsite farm and helping care for animals including sheep, alpacas, goats and chickens. They also make products such as garden stones, greeting cards and bath soothers, sometimes using items from the farm, which they sell at festivals and other events held at the center.
The goal is to begin selling the craft items and produce from the farm at local farmers markets this spring, said Shalom Institute Executive Director Bill Kaplan. Plans are also underway to incorporate baking into the program, so fellows can produce their own bread for sale, he said.
The program plans to expand to three days a week and add five additional fellows. Participants are paid a small stipend and must be 18 or older. (Currently, Fellows range in age from 19 to 46.)
“Being in this environment, it works. It’s very healthy, it’s very therapeutic,” Kaplan said. “It builds their self-esteem, and it’s like anybody that’s out there working, it’s a satisfaction with their work.”
Kaplan said he got the idea for the Farm Fellows program in 2012, when he attended The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Special Needs Mission to Israel. There he visited a variety of programs for people with special needs, including Kibbutz Harduf in the Lower Galilee, where adults with disabilities work on an organic farm, make bread for sale and learn skills such as weaving and pottery. Kaplan said the kibbutz reminded him of the Shalom Institute.
“That’s where it hit me,” he said. “I felt very in tune with it.”
The executive director said he launched the Farm Fellows program with the help of a $25,000 grant from Federation in 2014, and will be receiving another $35,000 this year. The program also was awarded a $15,000 grant from the Jewish Federation Valley Alliance.
Once the program is in full swing, Kaplan hopes that revenue from sales of products as well as donations will help sustain it. In the next few years, he said his aim is to be able to offer some part-time or full-time jobs to fellows.
There is a big need in the Jewish community for job-training programs for young adults with disabilities, Kaplan said. Federation estimates there are 3,000 Jewish families in Los Angeles who have children with special needs, and as they reach adulthood they need meaningful ways to contribute to the workforce, he said.
Enon Chocron, who oversees the Farm Fellows program, said the change he’s seen in the participants since September has been amazing. They started out scared to do anything, sometimes sitting down because they didn’t know what to do. Now they’re eager to participate and take pride in their work, he said.
“You can see the happiness, you can see them smiling, and they’re beginning to be good workers,” he said, looking over at the Fellows as they grabbed clumps of weeds from a vegetable bed. “They get to move, they get to do stuff that in some places they’d never have a chance to do.”
Too often, adults with special needs are dismissed by society as incapable, Chocron explained. The Farm Fellows program helps participants realize they can be productive, he said.
“It’s an opportunity for them to be more,” he said.
One participant, Brittanie Sanders, bubbled with excitement as she explained the work she’s been doing on the farm: planting arugula, feeding the animals, making gift cards. The 26-year-old from Camarillo, who has autism, said she hopes to get a job working on the farm some day.
“I love coming here, and I love working here. The people here are very nice and very loving and caring and down to earth,” she gushed. “I love everything here. I feel amazing.”