On a humid Wednesday morning, Bradi Masters, Tess Parker and a smattering of fellow Shelby County High School (SCHS) students swing open the door to their school greenhouse. They inhale the aroma of basil, soil and blooming flowers and get to work snipping herbs that’ll land on plates in Taziki’s Mediterranean Café within 24 hours.
These hard-working FFA members and special education students are part of the Herbs Offering Personal Enrichment (HOPE), a project started by Taziki’s founder Keith Richards and educator Cindy Vinson.
Since HOPE began at Vincent Middle High School in 2012 with freshly plowed ground and fierce determination, the project and its message of empowering and inspiring special needs students has expanded to schools in Calera, Montevallo, Columbiana, Nashville and beyond.
“The main goal is to teach students transferable job skills,” said Vinson, who is Shelby County Schools job coach. “Once they leave school, they can use these skills in their everyday lives.”
This was 10th-grader Parker’s first year involved in HOPE. Her special education class works in the greenhouse most days and has learned to make plants thrive from new friends like Masters, SCHS FFA president.
“If you want something, you have to work for it,” said Masters, who graduated in May. “But it’s also so much fun. I’ve made lots of friends.”
Herbs are grown in a student-built greenhouse and raised beds during the school year as part of the project. In the summer, special needs and FFA students are hired to keep up production.
Special education teacher Marisol Lilly praised the project and said the skills HOPE teaches are invaluable. The project also correlates with students’ curriculum — learning about plants checks off reading; the growing process is scientific; and calculating weight and invoices measures math skills.
“They’re taking ownership for a job,” said Lilly, whose students can harvest up to 3 pounds of herbs daily. “These students are seeing a seed grow into an end product. In life, you have to care for things, and they’re learning to do that.”
Students taste the fruits of their labor on field trips to Taziki’s, where their basil is used in pesto; rosemary seasons pork; rice is flecked with parsley; and cilantro freshens up salsa.
Profits from HOPE also directly benefit students through classroom improvements.
While not all HOPE project schools have active agriscience programs, SCHS ag teacher Dustin Cleckler said the program cultivates personal and educational development in his students.
“I teach my students how to care for the plants, and they teach the other students,” said Cleckler, who collaborated with the Shelby County Farmers Federation and other local organizations to fund the school’s greenhouse.
Cleckler attributes part of the project’s success to his 12-month extended contract, which allows ag teachers to concentrate on programs like HOPE year-round. His students also complete Supervised Agricultural Experience programs through HOPE.
The inherent culture of Taziki’s, which will have around 80 franchises by 2018, is to positively affect communities — both through HOPE and employing those with special needs.
“It’s not only good for the kids, but helps parents, too,” said Richards, who began Taziki’s in 1998 with wife Amy. “It gives them a break. If I can give them that three to five days a week, I want to.”
Richards said his goal, once HOPE is self sustaining and produces enough herbs for daily deliveries, is to engage restaurateur peers in the project. He hopes to help them learn from HOPE’s students, like he has.
“I have a rapport with all these students. From the beginning, I wasn’t sure of their abilities, but it’s amazing what these students can do,” Richards said. “For me to be involved in their lives, not a lot of people get that kind of opportunity.”
For more information, visit tazikiscafe.com/hope.