Blooming Potential

Appears in the June 2023 issue.

By Judy Sutton Taylor

We Grow Dreams provides job training for developmentally disabled adults

We Grow Dreams Greenhouse

In 2004, three West Suburban families with children who had developmental disabilities were lamenting the lack of employment opportunities their kids would face after high school and decided to do something about it.

Wanting to provide job training, they decided the day-to-day business of running a greenhouse could offer a multitude of engaging opportunities for their kids and others like them. They envisioned trainees working alongside volunteers and paid staff members in a supportive environment to learn everything from gardening and customer service skills to clerical and retail expertise. After coming together to buy an existing business at 1055 West Washington Street in West Chicago and inheriting some of its already knowledgeable employees, the nonprofit We Grow Dreams Greenhouse & Garden Center was born.

Almost 20 years later, about 30 team members, as the trainees are called, work at the business on any given day, according to office manager Melanie Grotto. There are more than 45 specific job-training opportunities, she says. “No one does the same thing every day. They might work with the soil machine one day, weed the next, and run the cash register after that.”

Roses in the greenhouse

The five-acre property includes 13 greenhouses where a mix of perennials, annuals, fruits, vegetables, herbs, and succulents are grown. Team members make craft items including planters, steppingstones, garden bricks, and greeting cards that are for sale. We Grow Dreams offers a potting service and consults for special events as well. There’s also a wholesale side, which provides plants to landscapers, area park districts, and other businesses.

Executive director Gregg Bettcher says employees and team members consider their working relationship to be win-win: “To a person, our team members love the fact that they come into We Grow Dreams and get to work with a group of people who are accomplishing the same tasks as they are. They exemplify team spirit in helping each other get things done.”

Young plants growing in the greenhouse

That team spirit goes both ways. “Our employees get a great deal of satisfaction helping our team members, sometimes together and sometimes working as individuals,” Bettcher adds. “We have a group of DuPage master gardeners that volunteer every week, and the interaction between them and our team members is terrific.”

In addition to job training, team members learn communication and social skills as they prepare to move on to other things. But there’s no time limit for completion—team members can stay as long as they like working the various jobs. “It’s fun for them to see what’s possible and what they like best, whether it’s the satisfaction of pulling weeds or perfectly stacking items,” Grotto says. Several team members have been working at the greenhouse since We Grow Dreams started, she adds, and some hold one or two other jobs in addition to the work they do there.

Looking ahead, the not-for-profit corporation hopes to expand its programs to provide more wintertime work for team members as well as opportunities that will teach basic animal care.

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Photos: Melanie Grotto