“The cherry tomatoes, I do like the cherry tomatoes,” says James Sardiello, with a bit of a bashful smile as he confesses to munching a few straight off the vine during harvest. Sardiello, of Freeport, and his colleagues, Vinny Veprek, of Seaford, and Billy Jacobs, of Bethpage, make up the garden crew at AHRC Nassau’s Horticultural Program’s bucolic headquarters in Brookville, on the grounds of the former Hill Estate and Big Tree Farm.
The men provide the labor, but their work gives them greater independence.
They are among 2,200 adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities served by AHRC Nassau, a not-for-profit private agency founded in 1949 by parents who wanted better opportunities for their children.
Sardiello, Veprek and Jacobs are not only gainfully employed, they are also helping AHRC’s garden on its mission to become organic and self-sustaining. Aside from popping the occasional cherry tomato in their mouths while harvesting, the men help greenhouse horticulturist Nanette Muzante cultivate flowers and vegetables in the greenhouses and garden. They unload stock, plant, water and weed from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. five days a week, guided by activities coach Adel Telab. They assist in putting together flats of perennials and pots of vegetable seedlings, preparing for sales of holiday wreaths and centerpieces, and also take the merchandise to large clients, individual customers, fairs and group homes for sale. The proceeds are put back into garden development.
The trio were longtime staff of the organization’s landscaping program and are now acquiring new skills, and a new appreciation for vegetables.
Rob Hayes, landscape and greenhouse coordinator, says the experience of working with plants can be transformational for the men. “Their whole life changes,” he says. “They are out there in the community, any behavioral issues go away. Some even start to drive, and upgrade from living in a sheltered home to their own apartment.”
Certainly Sardiello, Veprek and Jacobs love their work. All shyness disappears as they take visitors on a tour of the cold frames, eager to demonstrate how they care for the phlox, dianthus, dahlias, parsley and thyme, and yes, do a bit of showing off for the camera.
And they are clear about what they like about the job. “I like working outdoors. I like planting and putting the fertilizer down,” says Vinny Veprek. “I have a garden at home, too.”
James Sardiello, doesn’t just like picking and eating the cherry tomatoes. “I like planting all the tomatoes, and I like the greenhouse,” he says. “And I like the prices. I like selling.”
Billy Jacobs has his own favorite activity. “I love to water.”
Jacobs also likes digging, which he puts his heart into as the team transplants tomato seedlings from the refurbished 1917 Lord & Burnham greenhouses into the 5,000-square-foot vegetable garden that they have prepped with fertilizer and manure from a nearby stable. Soon eggplant, peppers, green beans, cucumbers and cauliflower will follow, to be harvested and sold along with cut flowers like zinnias, sunflowers, asters and more.
Nanette Muzante, who has been managing the greenhouse since 1998, has enjoyed having the extra help over the two years since the men joined her operation, although she says there was a learning curve for her, in addition to the assistants. “I was a little nervous,” she says. “I had spent so much time developing this and developing my customer base and relations. I learned that they [her assistants] need to have their instructions reinforced many times. But they are becoming independent, and they know that when they come in they need to water, straighten, get ready for plant sales and sell the plant material for me. That gives me a chance to catch up on other things like invoices and orders.”
And with more time, plus a newly received $10,000 Capacity-Building Grant from the United Way, Muzante will be able to achieve her goals for the garden. The greenhouse has come a long way since she transformed it from a holiday haunted house to its current productive state, but she wants to go even further.
“We want to go completely organic,” she says. “I would like to grow more crops, increase customer flow and extend our hours so people can find us. We are expanding.”
And with the help of her able assistants, the AHRC Greenhouse will surely get there.