Before Brent Flory, 22, started bagging fruits and vegetables at his local Stater Bros. Market, he picked them at the University of California South Coast Research and Extension Center in Irvine.
In partnership with Saddleback Unified School District's Esperanza Education Center, an adult transition program that provides independent living and life skills training for students with disabilities, South Coast REC hosts students on its 200 acres of land and introduces them to careers in agriculture.
Flory recalls picking avocados as one of his favorite moments from the program at South Coast, one of nine RECs across California operated by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources. “I picked a huge avocado and got to bring it home. It was the size of a medium pumpkin,” he shared.
Field work doesn't warrant business attire, but Flory said that working at South Coast REC taught him the importance of dressing appropriately for work. In this case, it meant pants, closed-toe shoes, a shirt with sleeves, and sunscreen or a hat if working in the sun.
While program managers hope that participating students would pursue a career in agriculture, South Coast REC is more concerned about providing opportunities for students to gain real work experience in a unique setting.
“This is the first time I have had the opportunity for my students to work at a job site in the agricultural field. We never really thought of the agricultural industry as an option for our students,” said Esperanza's education specialist, Michael Seyler.
Esperanza's partnership with South Coast REC began in October 2019. Since then, nine participants have been assigned to work at the research center where they help create seedlings, plant and harvest crops, and learn plant management.
Ray Bueche, Adult Transition Program coordinator and Career Start administrator at Esperanza, is proud of the creative energy it took to develop the program and unite partners, crediting Jason Suppes, South Coast REC's community education specialist. “Working with Jason and UC ANR has inspired me to continue to reach for unique partnerships in this field and elsewhere,” Bueche said.
Dylan Shelden, 19, another past participant, said that the program revealed how important it is for him to choose a career that makes him feel happy and independent. “You are responsible for yourself,” he said. “So, don't quit on the first try.”
Shelden currently works at Party City as a store organizer. Even though he prefers working indoors, Shelden described working with plants and being outdoors as refreshing. “Working in agriculture makes me feel good,” he said.
When asked what advice he would give incoming students, Shelden said: “Be kind, mindful, and thoughtful to others.”
“Things are constantly changing at the farm and follow seasonal patterns. Students get to work with different types of produce depending on the season. So many of my students only thought about jobs in retail or food services industries,” said Seyler. “This has opened their eyes to other possibilities.”
The soft skills learned while working at South Coast REC has helped other students secure paid competitive employment during or following the program. It has also inspired program staff like Bueche and Seyler to consider other unique opportunities for their students to connect the skills they have learned on the farm to other types of jobs.
To learn more about the Adult Transition Program at Esperanza Education Center, visit: https://www.svusd.org/schools/alternative-schools/esperanza/about/why-esperanza