Executive director of Watch Us Farm, Janice M. Agarwal, has worked as a pediatric physical therapist, helping the families of special needs children for many years. While working abroad, she traveled to England and Germany, and found educational models that prepared children with special needs for vocational training.
“The concern in these countries was much the same as we see here,” Agarwal says. “After a child with special needs grows up, what are they going to do? Will they have jobs and housing? And so, the vocational training models there address these questions and concerns by offering an education that prepares those with special needs for certain jobs.”
On the other hand, here in the U.S., Agarwal says that families with special needs children are fighting just to get their children to finish school.
“In many ways, public education fails to offer the skills that will enable special needs adults to succeed at jobs they excel at,” she says. Agarwal explains that people with special needs have gifts that make them valuable contributors, and they want to work and support themselves. “But they may need some help. As a community, we can come together to create an environment that can help them succeed.”
When Agarwal had her son who has special needs, she knew she had to make a difference to change the way education in America prepares special-needs children for future employment.
“I didn’t want my son just to get through school,” Agarwal says. “I wanted him to have a job, and I wanted him to have housing. Just as importantly, I wanted him to retain the friendships he made in school. It can be a very lonely existence after graduating from high school and losing the friends he got to see every day.”
Changing the way educational models think about people with special needs has been the hardest job she has ever had, says Agarwal. “It’s the hardest fight I have ever had to fight, but for many special needs children after they finish high school, that’s it. For many families, the kids just hang out at the house. And there’s no system in place helping the kids become more self-sufficient or have their own housing,” she says.
This is where Watch Us Farm comes in. A pilot program, the nonprofit currently operates on a small farm in Zionsville that sells produce locally. The nonprofit employs adults with autism, brain injury, and intellectual impairment in a secure and nurturing environment. It helps to teach the skills that will give those adults with special needs the chance to have a career and more independence after high school.
“We need to stop categorizing people and think about the person instead,” Agarwal says. “For people with special needs, we can individualize jobs to fit what they can do. Maybe they can do five hours a day or three hours a day. We can fit the role to best serve the person. And as the person gets to know that job, they can do more and more, but you have to start small and let their world get bigger.”
Watch Us Farm hopes to expand to partner and collaborate with more businesses. For more information about Watch Us Farm, visit the nonprofit’s website at www.watchusfarm.com