Agriculture, marketing at the root of new BOCES program

Editor’s note: Banat first wrote this piece as part of her internship at Herald Community Newspapers. To read the original, click here.

Beginning this fall, students with special needs from across Long Island will harvest crops at the Nassau BOCES Rosemary Kennedy School in Wantagh to feed older adults and food-insecure families in their communities.

“This new program gives us many new opportunities to provide vocational instruction for our students,” Rosemary Kennedy School Principal Matthew Zegers said. “The greenhouse area serves as an outdoor classroom for them to grow healthy produce.”

Seventy-eight students with developmental disabilities who attend the Nassau Board of Cooperative Educational Services class will take part in the new program, which is tied to Smile Farms, a nonprofit that finds agricultural jobs for people with disabilities and teaches them farming skills, according to the organization’s website.

The Smile Farms at Nassau BOCES program kicked off Sept. 29 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Wantagh location.

“I’m very excited that we’re able to provide this opportunity for our students,” Zegers said. “We constantly look for fun, creative new ways to challenge them and teach them new skill sets.”

In the program, “Smile Farmers,” ages 10 to 21, will learn to prepare produce for production, including seed-starting, cultivating, harvesting, marketing and distribution of their crops, Managing Director of Smile Farms Diana Martin said. Twelve raised cedar beds with irrigation will be used to grow peppers, tomatoes and other crops. Instructional rooms will be equipped with grow labs.

Martin said this is the first time that Smile Farms will partner with a program of multiple school districts, and she looks forward to the additional opportunities this will create.

“We have partnerships with two individual schools, but to partner with Nassau BOCES, knowing how many schools they have and how deeply rooted they are in the Nassau County community. … we feel like this is going to open up so many opportunities to create additional partnerships, which would mean more farms, more educational opportunities and possibly more job opportunities.”

Grown produce will be donated for use at Hempstead Senior Centers, the Meadowbrook Alternative Program at Brookside, Hempstead Conservation and Waterways, and used for campus lunches at Nassau BOCES facilities.

The program, which began in late September, launched with two educational programs, 10 teachers and 78 teenagers and young adults, Martin said. One Nassau BOCES graduate is currently working part-time for the Smiles Farm program.

Smile Farms founder Jim McCann, who also founded 1– Inc., said he looks forward to the start of the new program.

“It’s an opportunity to broaden our services,” McCann said. “I get excited about helping people in need. I get excited when I see that they get excited about being able to help other people. There is something magical about that circle of service — they are in need but are helping others.”

McCann said his passion for philanthropy and his brother’s disability are parts of what prompted him to create Smile Farms. “Having a brother who was in need of these services played a big role,” he said. “He is extremely verbal and social. With Smile Farms, I was able to create a good career opportunity for [my] brother, who is cherishing it.”

The Wantagh facility marks the 10th Smile Farms location in the NYC metro region. Nassau BOCES is a public agency that serves 300 schools and 225,000 students of the 56 school districts in Nassau County.