At Frank Community Farm, all abilities aid the workforce. Contributed photo. Frank Community Farm Helps Community
At Frank Community Farm, all abilities aid the workforce. Contributed photo.

A terrible loss plants seeds of hope.

RICHMOND – What began as a tragedy for one family turned into a godsend for others. Frank Community Farm in Richmond honors the memory of two twin brothers, Mathew and Tyler Frank, and their father, Keith Frank.

While both boys battled health issues, along with autism and intellectual disabilities, Mathew passed away suddenly in 2006. Only nine years later, Tyler passed away from complications with one of approximately 30 daily seizures. His father, Keith, was in the garage when the seizure took place. Keith committed suicide later that day.

That same year, family friends Crystal Stokes and Rachel Matthews came up with the idea for a farm. The Community Supported Agriculture model didn’t just hire farmers. The business offered opportunities for neurodivergent individuals. Coined in 1998, the term neurodiversity references variations in the brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood and other mental functions.

Stokes serves as the president of Frank Community Farm. Matthews serves as the vice president of training and behavioral support. Together, the ladies, created a business model with people like Tyler and Mathew in mind. They wanted a space where adults with differences could thrive – and not only be accepted, but celebrated.

In late 2016, Frank Community Farm officially became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. A small number of interns participated in the pilot program, preparing handmade products to sell at local farmers markets. The farm participated in its first market in February 2017, selling handmade sugar scrubs and seed papers. In March 2017, the farm established its first two gardens in Henrico.

The farm currently maintains two gardens, offers a produce and egg delivery service and also sells Yaupon tea.

The farm’s business model

“Frank Community Farm offers unpaid internship opportunities to adults who are looking to build their vocational skills,” Matthews said. “Throughout the course of an internship, the intern receives individualized training on various job tasks related to the work of the organization. In addition to learning specific job tasks, interns also receive training on the soft skills necessary to maintain long-term employment.”

Each internship begins with an assessment period, where with the support of farm staff, the intern completes various tasks. The nonprofit collects baseline data on capabilities, communication, socialization, appropriate and safe behavior, attendance and punctuality, appropriate work attire and hygiene. Then, the intern undergoes a preference assessment. Together, the team determines which tasks best suit the individual and training continues from there, along with regular progress assessments. The internships build a repertoire of skills that allow individuals to successfully obtain and maintain long-term employment in the future.

“Interns may participate in any of the operational tasks involved in the farm, which include preparing soil, planting, harvesting, packing, delivering, cleaning, tea processing, etcetera,” Matthews said. “Each intern is assigned tasks based upon their individual strengths and preferences.”

Once an intern is able to complete a set of job duties independently at the farm with only periodic support from staff, then they may move into a paid position within the farm if desired.

Some interns also choose to pursue employment outside of the organization. Farm staff provides support to interns who interview for various job positions.

Other opportunities

Other interns do not pursue paid employment. Rather, they move into a lead intern position at the farm, in which they can continue to work at the farm, building a repertoire of higher-level vocational skills. Lead interns may take on additional responsibilities such as training and supporting other interns.

“We currently have three interns working on the farm and are preparing to bring on two more interns from our waiting list in the near future, assuming that COVID rates continue to remain stable or decrease,” Matthews said. “Some of our past interns have successfully moved into employment positions at other organizations.”

The farm welcomes employees from all walks of life and doesn’t exclude applicants who might have different skills than others.

“We don’t like to use the terms ‘high-functioning’ and ‘low-functioning’ because they tend to paint a very over-simplistic picture of an individual. In fact, every person – whether neurodivergent or neurotypical – excels in some skill areas, while requiring more assistance in other skill areas. All of our interns possess a variety of skills and we are always looking for ways to utilize their talents,” Matthews said. “We do work with interns who may be referred to as ‘emergent speakers/listeners’ – still learning to communicate effectively with others – as well as interns who are full speakers/listeners. We also work with interns who require heavy behavioral support in order to maintain safe and appropriate behavior.”

A different perspective

Matthews noted that embracing neurodiversity in the workplace encourages thinking outside of the box in terms of individual job positions. Job carving is one strategy used at Frank Community Farm. The employers create, modify or customize job positions so that employees will thrive in areas where they are most successful and useful to the company, based upon their individual strengths.

There are also many benefits to seeing and doing things differently in the workplace.

“Neurodivergent workers are often some of the most dedicated and dependable employees you will ever have. Many of these individuals are incredibly excited for the opportunity to do what they love. They are eager to learn and succeed in their jobs. Many individuals with autism have the innate ability to really focus in on a particular area of interest, and by doing so, they are able to become experts in those areas. Companies can and should utilize that expertise to benefit the overall organization,” Matthews said. “Additionally, creating a more diverse workforce simply creates a more colorful and exciting workplace. Having workers of all different neurologies allows everyone to learn from each other, to expand their mindsets and to grow together. It allows creativity to flow, and for new ideas and innovations to arise, therefore raising the company’s overall performance.”

An uneven playing field

Still, statistics published in 2017 by the Interactive Autism Network revealed that only 14% of autistic adults who received developmental disability services landed a job. Additionally, 60% of adults with ADHD surveyed by the ADHD Awareness Coalition in 2011 said they had lost or changed a job and attributed the job loss to their ADHD symptoms.

It appears that employees exhibiting different ways of thinking could be predispositioned to not land a lucrative career.

However, Matthews spoke positively about diversity in the workplace, and the benefits different perspectives bring.

“Hiring neurodivergent workers is mutually beneficial for both the employer and the employee,” Matthews said. “Employers should approach the hiring process with an open mind and creative flexibility to their predetermined open positions. By doing so, they open themselves up to benefit greatly from the benefits of a neurodiverse workforce.”

Pandemic progress

Like many other nonprofits and businesses across the country, the novel coronavirus pandemic also impacted Frank Community Farm.

“The effects of COVID-19 have impacted the program quite a bit. The farm has taken a variety of measures during this outbreak in order to ensure the safety of its staff and interns, including limiting volunteer access on the premises, pausing enrollments of new interns and refraining from selling products at their farm stand,” Matthews said. “While these measures are necessary to ensure safety, they have had a detrimental effect on the farm’s income.”

The safety precautions especially put a strain on the nonprofit’s operational funds. The farm typically maintains farm operational expenses from sales revenue and income from the intern program typically covers staffing costs. With the significant temporary downsizing of the intern program due to COVID-19, Frank Community Farm had to use sales revenue to cover both staffing costs and other operational expenses.

Stokes started a GoFundMe campaign for the farm, which raised $19,555 of a $25,000 goal in five weeks. The fundraiser is ongoing.

“The GoFundMe fundraiser is already helping to cover salary costs for workers on the farm,” Matthews said. “Continued support will allow us to continue paying our workers until we are able to return our intern program and farm stand to full operation.”

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. She can be reached at amie@couriernewsroom.com