Below: Listen to a version of this story that aired on WUFT-FM.
As GROW Hub’s gates open for the day, workers start filling in, many of whom are smiling from ear-to-ear, ready to get started. Art classes, seed saving, and upkeeping fields and greenhouses are just a few things people can do at Gainesville’s GROW Hub.
The first order of business is to mow the fields, while those with limited mobility begin their day inside. GROW Hub, which stands for Growing Real Opportunities for Work, teaches people with disabilities vocational skills through art and agriculture.
“He’s quite the little entrepreneur.”
David Banes, Director of GROW Hub, was talking about Kyle Smith, an employee. Smith sat in his wheelchair as he proudly showed off a mouse pad he designed. But he said his favorite designs are his coffee mugs.
“I find that everybody likes a coffee mug, and if I can specialize it, hopefully I’m giving them what they want.”
After enduring three brain surgeries in 2015, Smith said he found comfort in making the mugs during his recovery.
“But all this started as a hobby. After my surgeries, I was not able to do anything at all, really, so I needed something.”
Melissa DeSa, Community Programs Director at Working Food, works alongside Smith every week and said he’s been able to rise to the surface as someone who’s capable of just about anything, from making art to selling plants.
“Kyle, who’s passing by us here, you know, he’s really shown interest in the plant sale piece, and it’s been hugely helpful for us to know that he’s capable and trustworthy to run the plant sales. You know, like, he’s handling taking money from folks and being customer service,” DeSa said.
Smith headed to what he said is his next favorite place: the arts and crafts room, where his products are up for sale.
“I’ve made all the coffee mugs that you’ll see and license plates,” he said.
Prints on the mugs range from GROW Hub logos to spiritual quotes. Smith said he really enjoys the process of making and printing his designs.
“Do the design on the computer, special ink and print it out reversed, tape it to the page, put it in the heat press, and it molds onto it, and that’s it!”
Banes, who knew Smith before his brain surgeries, said his persistence in his art is a prime example of one of GROW Hub’s goals: convincing the community people with disabilities can be a valuable part of the workforce.
“Cause they wanna work; they, they appreciate the work. We have people volunteering here, that when we tell them we’re gonna close, you get this shoulders drop, head drops, chin drops, and they’re like, ‘Ugh, now what am I gonna do?’”
DeSa added to that notion, saying Smith texts her after work with new ideas for plant sales, excited to be involved and feel valuable.
“Perhaps, this is just my value assessment, but when you had been quote-unquote normal before, and then you’ve been faced with a disability, to know that you’re still a useful member of society, and your whole life hasn’t entirely changed, that you still got a place to come every day and do work, is important to him, perhaps compared to those who have never known anything different,” DeSa said.
Now, Smith said he’s looking forward to continuing his business, not only selling his customized coffee mugs, license plates and mouse pads, but also learning new techniques.
“If somebody needs something different that I don’t know how to do yet, whether I can or can’t do it, it’s worth at least figuring it out.”
Smith added that he started off coming to GROW Hub once a week, but now he comes out as many days as he can.
“Even if you don’t know quite what you’re doing, there’s always a good community of people to help you, or you help them, or – people are pretty easy to talk to around here,” he said.
Above all, he said that he likes the conversations, meeting people and hearing new perspectives. From three brain surgeries to becoming an entrepreneur, Smith adds that he hopes he can help others “grow” in the future.