Donated pot-growing equipment helps center’s produce, and workers bloom
SUPERIOR, Wis. -- What does it take to help someone grow and reach his or her full potential?
In many ways it’s the same ingredients that employees at Superior’s Challenge Center put into growing fresh tomatoes, basil and peppers: a healthy environment, the opportunity to set down strong roots, and allowing them to develop at their own pace. And last week, a donation of equipment from area marijuana busts went a long way to helping both the center’s workers and its produce bloom.
“This is just what our vegetables needed,” said senior worker Wanda Meinke. “Many of the workers are using the equipment and seem to enjoy it.”
The St. Louis County (Minn.) Sheriff’s Department donated $20,000 worth of pot-growing equipment – lights, fans, electrical transformers and other materials – to the center, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing services that support people with disabilities and empower them to work in the community.
“I was looking for a job, so I applied here,” said Vivian Willoughby, an elder who has worked in the greenhouse for three years. “It is a good time. I can say that I actually love my job.”
This is the first time the sheriff’s office has donated drug equipment.
The lights in the greenhouse will serve as an extra sun and give the plants an early production start. The big fans will circulate more air into the greenhouse – giving plants enough oxygen – and the electrical transformers will be part of the setup for the lights. The equipment also will expand job opportunities at the site.
“The equipment we received is a significant help to our greenhouse,” said Debra Gergen, work services director at the center. “We truly appreciate the donation.”
The equipment given to the center, which is supported by the Catholic Charities Bureau, came from a series of drug busts from 2009 to 2012. Items from drug busts are usually auctioned off. But police felt donating the equipment was a better idea. That way the products couldn’t drift back into the marijuana-growing underground.
“I had a level of awareness at the Challenge Center,” said St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman. “I thought it could be of use to them. I know they will use it for a good cause.
“It didn’t make sense to put the items back on the market,” Litman said. “The equipment will now go to a good cause and won’t end up in the wrong hands.”
Built in 1983, the center is well-known for its Bay Produce vegetables. Tomatoes, peppers and basil are grown in its Bay Produce greenhouses. The first greenhouse is a seasonal half-acre building, which grows about 6,000 grape tomatoes and 6,000 bell peppers. It was built in 1986. The second greenhouse, which grows tomatoes and basil, was built in 1996. Nearly 1,700 tomatoes are grown in there. It also contains beehives so bumble bees can pollinate the tomato plants.
“Most of us work in the second greenhouse,” Meinke said. “It is so big and beautiful in here.”
The center’s middle-aged and elder workers have developmental disabilities, social challenges, cognitive disabilities and age-related special needs.
“This is the first job some of the workers ever had. We want to work with them and improve their work, communication and leadership skills,” Gergen said.
Willoughby, who faces developmental disabilities, said she loves working in the warm greenhouse year-round and it gives her satisfaction. One can tell she is passionate about her work. She is the primary basil care person, responsible for trimming, weighing and packaging the basil in bags so it is ready to go.
In addition to basil, Willoughby uses the lights donated by the sheriff’s department to grow the tomato plants.
“The lights have a great impact on the plants,” Willoughby noted. “They do wonders for the tomatoes.”
Willoughby said she enjoys all her co-workers and they make work worthwhile. Outside the greenhouse, she bowls with some of them.
“Everyone I work with here is really special,” Willoughby said. “I’m glad the center created the women bowling league, so we can go out and have fun together.”
Meinke has worked in the greenhouse for nearly 15 years, performing tasks such as packaging and putting stickers on tomatoes.
“They like to send me all over the place,” Meinke said with pride.
Meinke, who faces communication challenges, says working in the greenhouse and having so many different roles allows her to feel free and happy. That means a lot to Meinke. Even though she’s been at the center for a while, she said she wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.
“The people that work here are so sweet; I have a pretty good relationship with most,” Meinke said. “I work with tomatoes all day long, but I don’t eat them. I like the peppers. They are my favorite vegetable.”
“All of our workers do a remarkable job here at the Challenge Center,” said center Director Gene Chuzles. “They all take ownership and really care about their jobs. We are truly thankful for their help.”