Jen Rodriguez, Nursery Manager and employee Laurie Cash were hard at work at the nursery.
by Jill Forman
Growing Works is a non-profit wholesale nursery in Camarillo, and much more. It is a training ground for Behavioral Health clients, a partnership with Turning Point Foundation, an opportunity for local businesses and organizations to be involved, and a state-of-the-art facility with native and drought-tolerant plants.
And it is a dream come true for many. “There is a place for everybody,” says Nursery Manager Jen Rodriguez as she works swiftly, filling “…our biggest orders ever.” Employees and volunteers water, select and trim plants. These workers have experienced mental health challenges, and have been through classes on life and work skills as well as hours of volunteering at the nursery.
Jason Meek, Executive Director of Turning Point, emphasizes the benefits, “One can easily see that Growing Works provides individuals experiencing mental illness with an opportunity to attain employment in an environment rich in support, care, and free from stigmatization.” It is part of their journey, he says “… to wellness and self-empowerment.”
Supervisor Linda Parks was the driving force behind this project, from the concept to finding the site, pitching the project to organizations and government, obtaining funding, even getting down and dirty cleaning out the on-site structure. As she says, “It was a multi-year labor of love.”
Dennis Perry, the Nursery Director recruited by Parks, laughs as he tells how he got involved. “Come to a meeting, they said…” Perry is a volunteer active with NAMI (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill) and “…grew up in the nursery business.” So, he was a natural fit for this task.
Perry says there were a number of challenges on the site, from sick trees to a warehouse full of furniture. He set up workdays with local students, the Carpenters’ Union, employees from companies such as Home Depot, and citizens who wanted to help. Everybody donated their time.
Parks gave the County a list of essential repairs to make the location functional and safe, and they set up a budget. She also organized donations of materials such as gravel, fencing, concrete blocks, etc.
Growing Works opened in 2019. In the first three months, 30-40 Behavioral Health clients came through for training and work. Tom Hayduk, Production Manager, chats while rooting plant cuttings; he says half of his job is to work with employees and members (trainees from Behavioral Health who may become employees.)
“Sales are good,” Hayduk says. “We need to cover our own expenses.” He wants to grow 75% of the plants from their own cuttings. Growing Works’ goal is to be self-sustaining both financially and environmentally.
Production is currently limited by water quality, but there is a brand-new water treatment apparatus on site, proudly shown off by Perry, that will soon be installed and functional so the nursery can expand. It was obtained through a grant from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.
Georgia, a NAMI activist who had a son with mental illness, talks about how important it was to him to have a job. “I am proud of Growing Works; it is a positive force. Employees are proud of themselves, are a part of society, have dignity, and find strengths. They get support on a hard day.” It is a success because of “…strong skills with strong partners.”
Growing Works is not open to the public. For information, to donate or volunteer go to www.GrowingWorks.org.