Chicago urban farm helps students with autism cultivate life skills

In the shadow of the Chicago skyline, something you can't teach is being grown.

In a FOX 32 special report, Natalie Bomke highlights a program which is cultivating life skills for students with disabilities.

In a concrete jungle, a nearly one-and-a-half acre farm is a hidden gem. That's because it's not just any farm.

Change is in the air for a half-dozen students with autism and other intellectual challenges who are learning precious skills to grow and live.

"The great thing about the program is it’s a real equalizer. Nobody comes to the farm with a ton of experience or any experience, but everybody is in the dirt together or getting their hands dirty together or sweating together or freezing together," said Heather Tarczan.


Tarczan is the executive director of the Growing Solutions Farm, situated in the Illinois Medical District.

"It's a program that helps to develop self-esteem, self-confidence, but it also helps to take the students to the next level, they're about to develop those jobs skills," Tarczan said.

The program, developed by the nonprofit Urban Autism Solutions, is celebrating its tenth year.

Students like 18-year-old Melissa Roman are accompanied on the farm by their special education teacher.

"They get to be outside, they get to be a little more independent and we take some of the skills we learn in the classroom and generalize them in the real world," said Tim Makowski, who teaches Roman at Ray Graham Association.

"It's fun to be outside and picking fruits and vegetables," Roman said.

The students come from five West Side schools and live in neighborhoods where being outside isn't always a safe alternative.

"It really helps them come out of their shell," Makowski said.

The produce is sold to local restaurants and at a farm stand during warmer months, something the students take a lot of pride in.

"People come here and buy stuff and they really love it," Roman said.

"They see our customers come to the farm stand and buy the very product that they're growing and they kind of get a kick out of that," Tarczan said.

Urban Autism Solutions also provides additional job and life skills training to support students with disabilities. To date, they have served more than 1,000 young adults.