“If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?” That’s the question I asked the Job Readiness Program when they arrived one early autumn morning. Willie replied, “I already have a job. My dream job is working at Giant.” Paul said, “Community options.” Fayemi mentioned, “Project search. Madison Fields- grooming the horses, picking the hooves.” Mike told me, “I don’t know about now; when I was younger, a professional basketball player.” David replied, “I like being on the farm.”
The fall air is cool and crisp; dew covers the rolling acres of farmland. One by one, the cars start pulling in. The group members begin exiting the cars and excitedly ask what we will be doing today. Some ask about their preferred tasks, such as grooming the miniature horses, while others work independently. A majority of the participants have support staff that work with them while they’re on the farm. As more individuals begin to arrive they greet each other excitedly, asking about their weekends and how they are doing. Many group members have been in the group for six months up to one year. Some knew each other from school, while others have built a friendship that began in the program. It is clear from the shared happiness of the group how much they value their time together. During the pandemic there can be between six to twelve participants because of county guidelines. Our small group has become tight-knit this year.
The social aspect of the job readiness program is one that some might overlook, however it is key. After high school many individuals with autism don’t have the opportunity to socialize as often as they used to. Social invites are rare and it can be difficult for those living at home with parents to get to friend’s houses. Even now, participants may have other programs they are involved with but many of these have shifted to online groups due to COVID. The job readiness program is excellent because peers can still interact with one another, in person, while working outside and being distanced from one another.
The Daily Checklist
Some days, the group comes in and is able to choose which tasks they would like to start on first. Most individuals remember what needs to be done and have a couple preferred tasks. The participants know there are some tasks that must be done daily and others that are less urgent and can be done if primary tasks are completed early or that only need to be done monthly. Efficiency is important in the job readiness program and when there is idle time individuals use it to accomplish secondary tasks. The group is most productive when a checklist is made of all the tasks. Sometimes pictures are included to make tasks easier to visualize. They can each choose a task and mark its box once the task has been completed.
Tasks are generally centered around care for the animals on the farm. When working with the chickens, group members clean the water feeders, feed them grain, clean the roosting area, and help to collect eggs. When working with the miniature horses, they help to groom the horses, muck the paddock, clean the water troughs, and give fresh hay. Individuals distinguish between the different types of brushes and are knowledgeable about the order in which to use each brush. When working with the goats, participants clean the water trough, give fresh hay, pull burrs from their hair, muck the paddock, and weed the paddock. The group has learned which weeds are poisonous for the goats and how to identify and remove them. After completing tasks all tools are sanitized by the group.
The experience of working with large animals and becoming experts in farm work is significant and valuable, however the soft skills learned by the group are the most multifunctional. Soft skills, also known as transferable skills or professional skills, are non-technical skills that allow employees to interact effectively with others and enable them to be successful in the workplace. Soft skills that are acquired or improved in the program include communication and teamwork. Participants and their families can set goals prior to intake for the program and decide what they would like to gain from the experience. As new members join the program, program veterans take on a leadership role. Returning members will work together and model the tasks step-by-step, as well as provide reasoning behind why tasks must be done a certain way. The group is always learning new skills around the farm. This fall they helped to harvest, clean, and package vegetables from the garden and learned how to harvest and package honey to sell at Madison Fields. After they helped with these new tasks, they also set out to sell soap, honey and local produce for the Halloween Hooves and Horsepower event at Madison Fields. There are so many things to get done at Madison Fields and the group is always able to lend a helping hand.
After everyone has finished work it’s time for lunch. When the weather permits the group spreads out across two picnic tables. They are able to enjoy nice weather and good conversation at a safe distance from one another. Many of the participants share common interests such as music, video games, movies, and animals. They practice turn-taking and everyone is given an opportunity to speak. David is the photographer in the group and will often ask if he can take your picture or “mugshot”! Fayemi enjoys playing songs and will often sing along to YMCA or The Brady Bunch theme song. Willie likes playing games on his phone and will keep you updated on his score. They love to joke around and lunch is a good time to catch up with everyone’s home lives.
One day during our fall session I asked what everyone enjoyed most about helping out at Madison Fields. Willie replied, “The goats.” Paul said, “Chickens.” Fayemi noted his favorite task was “sweeping the floor,” while Mike said his favorite part of the day was “spending time with the goats.” David mentioned “grooming horses.”
This is a program packed full of different skills to learn, and the individuals are presented with new tasks and responsibilities as they progress in the program. It is easy to see why the majority of participants have been with the program for multiple sessions. The Job Readiness Program manager, Nancy’s passion for empowering others and comprehensive sessions, together with the lasting friendships made between participants, have made this program excel in many ways.
To learn more visit https://madisonfields.org/programs/job-readiness/. To apply please visit the URL and contact the program director, Nancy, for openings. After completion of the program application, the program director will schedule an intake evaluation and create an individualized plan.