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Growing Their Own : The Farm Store Prepares the Disabled for Money-Paying Jobs


Getting a job can be tough, especially for the disabled.

Which is why Barbara Cull started the Farm Store in Culver City.

Executive director of the ERAS (Educational Resources and Services) Center in Culver City, Cull has been involved for more than a decade in educating and training young people with disabilities. And she has long been aware of the need for a program to help disabled young adults make the often grueling transition from the protective environment of school to the competitive world of work.

"Whether they were going to go to college and needed some way to support themselves part time, or whether it was for the developmentally disabled young person, I had to find some vehicle to prepare them to enter the work force," Cull said.

On its surface, the Farm Store is an organic market that doubles as a restaurant. But the store, which occupies a converted hamburger stand on Sepulveda Boulevard, is also a vocational training program of ERAS, which offers a wide range of services to about 350 young clients each year, including schooling, counseling, therapy and training.

Cull started the project about a year ago, after cashing in her personal retirement fund and recruiting friends and family to help.

Today the market sells organically grown produce, baked goods, snacks, flowers and plants. The kitchen caters to a lunchtime crowd with a menu of soups, sandwiches, salads, herbal teas, gourmet coffee, fruit drinks and shakes.

Staffed by a manager and a full-time cook (who are not disabled), the Farm Store provides on-the-job training for about 25 disabled people at a time.

Trainees at the Farm Store learn how to work cooperatively. They master service skills such as taking customers' orders, working as cashiers and preparing food. They cull the fruits and vegetables, place orders, restock shelves, wash dishes and keep the store and kitchen clean.

Behind the scenes, trainees learn basic office skills by helping with inventory and bookkeeping.

During each training session of 20 weeks, the students spend the first 10 weeks trying their hands at various jobs and learning interviewing skills.

After applying for a particular position at the Farm Store and being "hired," they get 10 weeks of additional training in a specific job. This second phase also focuses on personal skills such as good grooming, handling finances, the use of public transportation and the importance of getting to work on time.

By the end of the second phase, trainees are ready to apply for a real job.

"Before the Farm Store existed," said Cull, "we couldn't find jobs for any of our kids. Obviously, the economic climate has been very bad, but the fact was that when they went in for an interview they had nothing to offer because they had never been trained how to handle themselves in a working environment. It set them up for failure."

Although passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990 has promoted more job opportunities for disabled people, Cull said, few training schools actually prepare learning-disabled people for work. They need a specialized type of education, just as they did when they were in school.

The traditional, and costly, method of vocational training, Cull said, has been to place disabled people with individual coaches and train them, on site, for two years.

"By pre-training," said Cull, "we shorten on the job-training time to maybe a month, or two months at the most, and we do it at a fraction of the cost."

Cull emphasized that since the Farm Store opened its doors a little over a year ago, every graduate of the ERAS Center has found employment of some kind.

"One individual," Cull recalled, "helped with the remodeling and carpentry at the store, so we sent him to the film studios with a letter of recommendation saying, 'This guy can build sets. Hire him.' And they did."

Before starting the training program at the Farm Store, Michael Blevis, who has Down's syndrome, had been waiting more than two years for public agencies to help him find a job.

Ever since completing the training program almost a year ago, Blevis, 26, has been working at Westward Ho Market in Mar Vista. Store manager Ned Taylor says he is "an all-around good employee."

"Michael receives no special treatment," Taylor said, "and I think that makes him feel more relaxed. He receives the same pay and has to do the same job as everyone else, and that includes bagging groceries, helping customers to their cars, bringing in shopping carts, sweeping up front and keeping everything clean."

Blevis says his job at Westward Ho means independence, and he readily admits he couldn't have done it without the training and support he received at the Farm Store.

"The Farm Store is nice," said Blevis, who volunteers at the Farm Store every Thursday morning, "but I love my job at Westward Ho. I waited a long time, and now I have regular hours and get paid every Friday."

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