A nonprofit organization in Hammond called OPTIONS aims to help people with disabilities find meaningful work, and to also facilitate meaningful community relationships.
As far as work goes, OPTIONS offers lots of options. People with disabilities might work at their thrift store, sort and clean recycled Mardi Gras beads or stack firewood. While those are slightly behind-the-scenes jobs, at the garden center just outside of Hammond workers interact with the public every day.
Ervin Olle has worked there part-time for the past two years, planting, transplanting and watering. He likes getting dirty, but one of his favorite tasks is helping customers load their purchases.
Olle pulled a big metal wagon full of flowers and vegetables through the parking lot to a customer's sedan. They popped the trunk and carefully and enthusiastically loaded them in.
Everyone knows each other at OPTIONS, even though the work sites are spread throughout St. Tangipahoa Parish. Christie Gardner is the marketing director and does all of her garden shopping at the center. She said Olle is a popular staff member.
“He’s always happy, gung-ho, easy to work. You’ll always see him outside, pushing a bunch of plants and doing the more physical labor too — he’s just always happy,” said Gardner.
“He’s an ideal worker,” she said.
Olle is one of 16 people who work at the garden center, which has been open for about 15 years.
OPTIONS Garden Center Manager Louisa Landwehr, supervises the program. She loves working with the colorful perennials, flowering tomatoes and great-smelling herbs they sell, and said the work is the same as any garden center.
“They plant seeds, they plant the plugs, and they weed, they fertilize and they help a little bit with customer service — as they’re able to,” explained Landwehr.
That can involve answering questions, helping customers find what they’re looking for, or helping load up cars. Gardner said it’s important that the employees enjoy the work.
“We try them out, we see if they like it — if they don’t like it they go somewhere else. If they like it here it’s amazing to see how their confidence grows, their self esteem. They’re just happy, they’re so excited to show you what has grown,” said Gardner.
Landwehr said the garden shop is an important fundraiser for OPTIONS, but the business measures its success beyond the bottom line.
“It’s socialization for them as much as it is a vocation... One of the things that you see when you come out here is just the happiness that that connection and that relationship can bring to two people,” explained Landwehr.
That is one of the reasons Linda Vise recently took a part-time job at the garden center. She has shopped at the center for a few years and loves gardening.
Vise said she appreciated the “very positive energy.” She added, “Most people learn something new every day, employees and participants, and every day is spent with everyone achieving something. Seeing that makes for a very positive atmosphere.”
But while relationships are an important goal for OPTIONS, the garden center also supports the local economy and offers personally rewarding work for many.
“Some of these people back here in the garden center they’ll tell you, ‘Ooh, it’s payday!’ and they’ll get very excited. Even if their check is not that much or whatever, it means something to them and they know that they earned it, and they’re so proud, and they’re so happy just to go spend their money,” said Gardner.
That’s definitely true for Olle. He loves his work as much as he loves to spend the money he earns. He said he especially likes to buy CDs, music and movies — mostly at Walmart.
OPTIONS is planning to open a new business in the coming months. It will be a weaving workshop where workers make handmade rugs, scarves and dish towels. The grand opening is scheduled for May 14.
Support for Northshore Focus comes from the Northshore Community Foundation.