Smile Farms Grows Pride for People With Special Needs

Smile Farms provides people with developmental disabilities meaningful work in agricultural settings.
Smile Farms provides people with developmental disabilities meaningful work in agricultural settings.

Advocates are giving Long Islanders a reason to smile this spring, as they grow their  nonprofit, Smile Farms, which gives agricultural jobs to people with special needs in their communities.

On April 4, the group held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for their newest farm, a collaboration with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk, a nonprofit community education agency located in Yaphank. Smile Farms also teaches individuals with developmental disabilities how to hone their green thumbs at four other farms across Long Island and Brooklyn.

“Having a job means a whole lot more than having a paycheck,” says Walter Stockton, founder and CEO of Independent Group Home Living (IGHL), which provides services and support for people with developmental disabilities. “It’s your reason for being. It’s social. It’s what you talk about with your family.”

Brothers Jim and Chris McCann, founders of 1-800-Flowers.com, helped sow the seeds of Smile Farms with the help of Stockton, by funding their first year-round greenhouse in Moriches about 20 years ago. Their brother, Kevin, an IGHL resident, inspired them to take up the cause.

Kevin and his coworkers have been growing flowers that are sold locally ever since. The families of these gardeners have reported noticing positive changes in their loved ones. It quickly became clear that Smile Farms not only impacted the community as a whole, but also improved the lives of participants by planting in them a new sense of pride.

With the help of other Long Island nonprofit organizations such as The Viscardi Center in Albertson and Skills Unlimited in Oakdale, the McCann brothers expanded their services, at the request of the special needs community. They now combine their agricultural knowledge with their passion for this mission.

Currently, the new Yaphank-based organic produce and flower farm employs 12 IGHL  clients in the group’s Vocational Program. After the completion of renovations, they expect to grow to 24 IGHL employees this spring.

The furthest west location of Smile Farms is at the League Education and Treatment Center in Brooklyn. Its sensory garden benefits students from the League School.

While currently having only New York-based locations, Smile Farms hopes to grow its mission nationally.