816 North

Students with developmental disabilities have fun learning farming skills

Kansas City Star

With a wide smile, Nicole Eberts, 19, says she enjoys her job and likes to serve people.

“I help with catering whenever needed,” she said.

Eberts works at The Farmer’s House Market on farmland in Weston, where she assists groups who reserve the upstairs dining room for luncheons, meetings and other events.

She’s an employee now. But not long ago, Eberts was a student learning job skills and workplace expectations at the farm when she was in special education at the Platte County R-3 School District.

Eberts has a job because two families with children who have developmental disabilities wanted to prepare them and others for a future with meaningful work in communities where they live.

The Farmer’s House Market, a nonprofit, was founded in 2012 by Alan and Suzanne Zimmerman of Platte City and David and Peaches Cunningham of Mission Hills.

The Zimmermans have a daughter, Julianna, 19, a senior at Platte County High School, who was born without part of a chromosome. The Cunninghams have a son, John David, 18, a senior at Shawnee Mission East High School, who has autism.

The two mothers met when their children were 3 and 4 years old at the Children’s Spot Developmental Preschool in Kansas City.

“When you have a child with a disability you’re afraid from the very beginning — where will they live, work?” said Suzanne Zimmerman, 51.

After preschool, the children enrolled in separate school districts and the parents continued to prepare for their children’s future.

“The most planned people are parents with a child with a disability,” said Peaches Cunningham, 53.

Several years ago, the families’ paths crossed again when both were looking into starting a job-training program for children with disabilities. They combined their efforts, and the vocational agricultural program was begun and continues to grow.

In late September, the families opened another location for the vocational training program at 415 Main St. in downtown Weston, about 3 miles west of the farm, where they lease some 2,000 square feet of retail space.

The new store is also called The Farmer’s House Market. All students on the farm and at the store are called farmers.

“Our motto is ‘A place where exceptional farmers live, work, play and grow,’” said Cunningham.

The program started in 2011 with The Seeds of Change Garden, a plot of land where students learned how to grow and sell produce. It expanded to include retail skills when the Zimmermans and Cunninghams leased a large barn on a former apple orchard and converted it into a store with a commercial kitchen in 2012.

The store on Main Street was needed, David Cunningham explained, because the big barn on the farm is a historic building and heating it is “cost-prohibitive in the winter.”

The barn will close in December and reopen in April. The students will continue to work and learn at the downtown store.

The two families knew that an agricultural vocational program was what they wanted to establish because of the versatility of farm work and the success of similar programs in other parts of the country.

“On a farm, there is basically a job for everyone,” said David Cunningham, 54. “In our setting, we can figure out what they’re really good at.”

Outside in the fields, students learn about planning, planting, caring for and harvesting crops. Twelve raised beds allow students who use wheelchairs to participate.

Inside the store, the farmers learn how to package produce, run a cash register, make change, talk to customers, serve food, keep the store clean and handle other responsibilities of operating a small business. The store sells vegetables, fruit and flowers from its own fields, locally produced honey, cider and cheese as well as country-themed farm and housewares, jewelry, scarves, cards, toys, novelties and gifts.

“We expose them to all programs and then match the job to the farmer’s preference and abilities,” said Kelly Cogan, program director.

The Cunninghams’ son has found out that what he wants is to be outdoors and that he “really likes working in the garden.” John David Cunningham works at the farm on weekends and holds a job after school setting tables at a retirement and assisted living community.

When she’s not serving at a luncheon during her shift on Fridays, Eberts ties and labels frozen pies, stocks shelves and — during growing season — tends flowers. Next month, she will start a job as a greeter at the Platte County Courthouse.

“This program gives the students an opportunity to experience what it means to have a job,” said Lorie Russell, resource teacher with West Platte Junior-Senior High School in Weston. Russell brings three students to the farm for two hours every Friday.

And students acquire much more than job skills.

“I see students grow more confident,” she said. “Their social skills improve and they have a better understanding of how to behave in public.”

Students from four high schools in three school districts attend classes weekly during the academic year. They are West Platte, Platte County R-3 and Park Hill school districts.

During summer school, the students usually attend more than once a week.

Schools throughout the Kansas City area often send students on a daylong field trip to The Farmer’s House Market.

Learning skills at The Farmer’s Market House is part of public school districts’ special education curriculum. Neither schools nor students are charged to attend the basic courses.

Tuesday through Friday, students from various districts and adults from day rehabilitation programs throughout Kansas City come to the farm.

Jessi Conner, a teacher at Park Hill High School, accompanied eight students to the farm store in September. Three groups of students with varying degrees of developmental disabilities rotate trips to the farm on Fridays, she said.

On that Friday, students bagged apples to sell in the store and made 50 chicken salad sandwiches for box lunches as part of the catering program.

A strong work ethic, a respectful attitude and a happy disposition are attributes that graduates of the program bring to the workplace, said Cy Bresette, who employs four young adults at Bresette’s Price Chopper in Platte City.

“Our customers love them,” Bresette said.

Three of his employees sack groceries and take care of customers, and one performs custodial work. All show up on time and are glad to be there.

“They are exemplary employees,” Bresette said. “They have an appreciation for their jobs, their friendships and their interaction with people on a daily basis.”

The same kind of work ethic can be seen in Colton Mullendore, 22, of Dearborn, who works two days a week at The Farmer’s Market House on the farm.

Mullendore’s responsibilities include tearing down cardboard boxes for recycling, emptying all trash, sweeping the market, watering the plants on the porch and cleaning the kitchen and restrooms.

Mullendore focuses entirely on the task at hand. Recently, when tearing down the boxes, he said his goal was “to go faster.”

The nonprofit has created a real-world environment for the students where they work alongside staff and volunteers, meet and greet customers and are paid the same as all employees with minimal retail experience starting out in a market staff position.

“This program is more individual-oriented and more fun for the students than some of the alternatives,” said Jeanne Modin, 58, of Kansas City, North. “It’s not an institutional setting.”

Modin, a recent customer at the farm store, said she retired from teaching special education three years ago and has become a fan of the store’s mission — and its fried apple fritters.

The annual operating cost for the program is about $500,000, said Suzanne Zimmerman. Some two-thirds of that revenue comes from retail sales. Individual donations, corporate grants and the nonprofit’s own fundraising efforts account for the rest of the budget.

As an elective, students can enroll in the Flour Sack Baking Program, taught by a chef with job coaches helping the students. They learn how to measure ingredients, follow recipes and package food products for sale at the store. The baking program teaches safe food preparation, planning, baking, packaging and marketing baked goods.

In 2015, a small fee will be charged to those who enroll in the baking classes, which are offered at the farm and at Platte Woods and Brookside churches. Nominal tuition will be assessed later to offset the cost of the job coaches, Zimmerman said.

Of the four founders, Suzanne Zimmerman is the only one at the farm full time. Her husband works in downtown Kansas City in cash-management consulting.

Peaches Cunningham is the executive director of Carnegie Village in Belton. Her husband works in the real estate business in Kansas City.

The Cunninghams spend their weekends in Weston.

“It’s a slice of heaven here,” Peaches Cunningham said. “No matter how hard we work, it’s still a vacation here.”

Peaches, David and John David Cunningham were all helping with the grand opening of the downtown store in late September.

And business was brisk: “Ever since I opened the doors at 9:30, it’s been nonstop,” she said.

Although The Farmer’s House Market has been open for only two years, traffic to the rural Weston location has been good.

“We were already a destination,” said Colleen Fulton of Weston, market manager. “Four or five generations came here when it was Vaughn’s Apple Orchard. Now, they come to support our mission.”

The store has its regulars who come for apple fritters, gooseberry and other jams and jellies, barbecue sauce and of course, the locally grown produce and fresh flowers.

Whenever new customers walk through the doors, the first words they hear are, “Have you been here before?”

If not, the customer is told that the store is a nonprofit and proceeds from sales help children and adults with developmental disabilities who learn and work there.

“It’s crucial that we tell our mission,” Fulton said. “You never know who’s got a friend or family member who needs our facility.”

Fulton said it’s also important that customers see individuals with developmental disabilities at work and realize that they are capable of doing so much.

Catering, for example, is the newest program offered by the nonprofit. It was introduced in June.

“We launched our catering business with a wedding brunch,” said Cogan, the program director.

Cogan was in charge of the menu and food preparation.

The day of the brunch, the farmers set up, staffed a drink station, served cake to 150 guests and cleaned up afterward.

At the farm

The Farmer’s House Market

23200 Missouri 273, Weston MO 64098


Open in October: 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday

In November: Closed Mondays and and will close for the season in early December.

Downtown Weston:

The Farmer’s House Market

415 Main St., Weston MO 64098


Open: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday