West Side Produce Farm Works to Provide People With Autism Life Skills

Growing up with autism can be challenging, but with the right support kids can live healthy, fulfilling lives. One West Side organization is working to empower young adults on the autism spectrum to learn life skills. 

When it comes to farming, 21-year-old Alejandro Sanchez knows what it takes to grow vegetables.

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“Teamwork. Like people can watch your back and help each other,” Sanchez said.

Alejandro Sanchez has been involved with the Growing Solutions Farm for the last three years.

“People grow vegetables here and donate to people who need vegetables at home,” Alejandro Sanchez said.

The 1.2- acre produce farm is a hands-on program teaching young adults like Sanchez the basics of farming with a goal of enhancing their social and vocational skills.

The farm is a part of Urban Autism Solutions, also called UAS, an organization Julie and Michael Tracy were driven to start when they struggled to find adult services for their son, John, who has autism.

“The suffering our family went through when we looked for services, and we knew we were going to have to support John and create a community around him of like-minded people,” said Julie Tracy. “A compassionate community where he could work, where he could thrive and grow.”

The organization recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary and gave past participants like Elvis Sanchez a chase to showcase what they’ve learned.

“I have a great time doing this,” said Elvis Sanchez. “I never planted before and this is my first time planting, so I just watch and learn how to do it.”

Elvis Sanchez started the Growing Solutions farm program last summer and has since learned skills to prepare for job opportunities.

“We learn about interviews, how to prepare for an interview, dress well,” Elvis Sanchez said. 

UAS also partners with different schools on the West Side to offer a variety of free services to support young adults from ages 16 to 22.

“We really offer skills that we don’t think schools have time to do in terms of social work services and social thinking and communication,” Julie Tracy said. “So our students can be successful once they reach their first job.”

The founders say they’ve helped hundreds of young adults find jobs and motivate them to continue to pursue goals.

“I wanted to be an FBI and then I changed my career. People need a mental health counselor, plus I have a mental health counselor that has helped me a lot and they inspire me,” Alejandro Sanchez said.

Elvis Sanchez says the program has given different alternatives to feel independent and navigate the challenges of his disability.

“I’ve had a hard time since I’ve had a disability. I’ve told my mom, ‘Why was I born like this?” Elvis Sanchez said. “I should’ve been born normal. I did cry but my mom would say it’s fine that I have a disability. I realized and something changed that I should be proud of who I am as a person.”

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