Teaching out of the box

New non-profit provides career training for individuals with special needs

GARDEN WORK Chris Evans (left) and Mason Churchill tend to the plants at Vista Park Hill Community Garden. Photo: Robert Eliason

Chris Evans has teaching in his blood.

His father was a teacher, his brother was a teacher, so it was fitting Evans would find his way into the profession as well.

But what seemed a natural career choice would become a pathway leading Evans to what he was naturally geared for.

“I decided it wasn’t for me anymore—the education system,” he said. “I felt I could do something more in private and in working with adults. I’m too relaxed and chill; I wasn’t built for a four-wall classroom education.”

But he was built to teach in a garden.

After years of working in education—most recently at San Benito High School as a resource specialist and special day class science teacher—Evans left his secure job in June of last year when he found it was necessary for special needs student, Mason Churchill, to leave San Benito High School.  

Evans and his wife, Courtney, had become acquainted with Mason—who has Fragile X Syndrome, which has characteristics similar to autism—after Courtney had become his one-on-one instructional aide at SBHS and Evans had substituted for his PE class.

Evans offered his teaching services when he learned Mason would be starting a home-based program.

“His situation is what pulled me out of teaching and the public education system,” Evans said. “Unfortunately—the school labels it in this way—but he was probably one of the toughest kids coming from the junior high into the high school program.”

The new curriculum Evans built for Mason, however, grew into more than just a basic home-based program.

After brainstorming together with Mason’s mother, Peggy, Evans created Growing Hearts Garden Center, a project-based career training program. The  non-profit specializes in supportive employment for individuals with special needs.

Peggy “is a landscaper; she owns Cutting Edge Landscape here in town, and she’s always wanted to open a nursery,” Evans explained. “And I wanted to do employment and supportive career training. So we started melding them together.”

Peggy said she also dreamed of such a company 15 years ago, when Mason was first diagnosed with Fragile X.

“I wanted to open a company that would create a job for him and other adults after they graduated from high school, [so they have] a purpose and a sense of community,” she said.

That dream came into fruition when they discovered a nursery site at Vista Park Hill Community Garden on Hill Street in Hollister.

“I needed a place where I could do education with Mason, and with his mom doing landscape and me wanting to do some gardening, I thought, ‘This is our classroom,’” Evans said.

In their classroom, a large section of succulents are blossoming in one corner, and in another one will find tomatoes, tomatillos, cilantro and peppers sprouting.

“We’re doing an all-salsa blend,” Evans said of this season’s harvest.

Last year, the garden produced cabbage, broccoli, kale and onions.

All the while, Mason has been blossoming as well.

Since the organization became a non-profit corporation in October, Evans has been doing speech and occupational therapy with Mason, as well as working on social skills.

“He loves to meet people now,” Evans said. “He goes up to people and loves to shake hands. That started about six months ago.”

Being a supportive employment business has allowed Evans to hire others with special needs.

His first employee, Adam Bell, for instance, was hired in March as an intern to do social media marketing and to document the progress Mason and Evans were making.

Bell, a client with HOPE Services—a local non-profit organization that assists individuals with developmental disabilities and mental health needs—also has a job coach, Robb Rodriguez.

As a HOPE employee, Rodriguez will work with Bell “100 percent of the time at the beginning of the internship,” Evans explained. He will eventually allow Bell to work more independently as the year goes on.  

Bell was also able to choose what area of the business he wanted to work in; a facet of the program Evans says is crucial.

“Once you know what people’s abilities are, people love to work,” Evans said. “Our special friends want that, and there’s a need for that in our community.”

To further Bell’s social media skills, which include blogging and shooting photos for the company, he has taken courses to become Facebook Blueprint certified and has improved his speech skills by reporting on the weather and writing his blogs.

Evans hopes this experience will allow Bell to work independently with Growing Hearts, or even venture off to something different.

Rodriguez has already noticed a difference in the short time he’s worked with Bell.

“To get to help him out every day, and to get to watch him grow, has been huge,” Rodriguez said. “It’s nice to see the community support, too—the amount of thank-yous and the giving. It makes it worth it.”

Bell is appreciative of the training he’s received.

“When you leave high school, you go to day programs,” said the 23-year-old. “When I came to Chris and Growing Hearts, I felt like I was getting somewhere. I love it.”

Up next for Growing Hearts is hiring a second employee through HOPE Services.

“He’ll do landscaping for me, so I’ll have a landscape intern,” Evans said.

With the list of projects lined up, Growing Hearts will need the assistance. These project include building gardens at Hollister’s Community Food Bank, working with Hollister Recreation in July to maintain the rose gardens at Dunne Park, and landscaping gardens at the San Benito County Jail for inmates to use.

“Obviously we can do community integration stuff, work together,” Evans said. “I’m trying to keep everything within the community so it circulates. … It’s our goal to grow hearts, and if we can grow hearts, we can impact the community.”

Growing Hearts Garden Center has a booth at the Farmers’ Market every Wednesday, set up outside of Fisher’s.

The First Annual Growing Hearts Walk/Run is on Sunday, Aug. 18 at 9am at Brigantino Park in Hollister. For information on Growing Hearts Garden Center, visit www.facebook.com/growingheartsgardencenter or call Chris Evans at 831.537.7700.

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