With a mission to enhance the lives of local citizens with disabilities, CALCan is no ordinary business.
On a cloudy April Tuesday afternoon, the 6,000-square-foot CALCan hydroponics greenhouse— far out of sight from Wanamaker Road in southwest Shawnee County—was dead silent apart from the cooling fans and the trickling streams of water working to grow varieties of lettuce and other produce. On Saturday, well, that was a different story.
By 11 a.m. Saturday, the hydroponics greenhouse, which grows plants without the use of soil, was alive with country music blaring and eight workers bouncing around from task to task.
The CALCan greenhouse—“CAL” being an acronym for “Colby,” “Andrés” and “Luke”—is the main hub for the CALCan Enterprises, LLC, a business that was started in 2015 and is owned by the parents of Colby Myers, Andrés Guillen and Luke Gerhardt as a means to give the three boys, who have disabilities, an opportunity to work. The three boys all attend Washburn Rural High School. Luke and Andrés are seniors, and Colby graduated in May 2015 and now is in Auburn-Washburn’s 18-21 program.
When work started late Saturday morning, Andrés and Luke were transferring lettuce plants that had grown too large for one table to another while Colby was with his father at the farmers market in downtown Topeka selling produce. Family members, including parents, Colby’s sister and Luke’s cousin, were hard at work in the greenhouse continued from page 25 planting seeds, watering sprouting plants and preparing packaging for the various lettuces and vegetation that the business produces.
Sydney Myers, Colby’s sister, was methodically placing labels on plastic containers for arugula. Sydney has been a part of CALCan from the beginning, when the first seed was planted Oct. 10, 2015.
“Being a part of something so amazing from the very beginning is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Sydney said. “It’s the best job in the world.”
Because CALCan is a for-profit business, said Tim Gerhardt, co-owner and Luke’s father, all those who work there are paid. He said the six employees, including the three boys, are paid $9 an hour.
“Minimum, we work two days a week, which is about 12 hours,” Sydney said. “We’ll spend about five or six hours a day harvesting or transplanting [on Wednesdays].”
But the job itself and the money are far from what holds CALCan in such high esteem for Sydney.
“The relationships with the three boys—the relationships I have with each of them, even my own brother—have gotten stronger through CALCan, and I love them all so much,” Sydney said. “They’re my best friends.”
The business recently picked up a new member.
“My aunt Rhonda [Gerhardt] invited me to CALCan a few weeks ago,” said Brooke Schucknecht, Luke’s cousin and a freshman at Washburn Rural High School. “I’d been helping out, but it wasn’t official.”
Schucknecht, now an official employee of CALCan, said she loves the job. Working three to four days a week, she also said her favorite part of the job is “getting to interact with Luke, Colby and Andrés.”
“It’s fun to work with them,” Schucknecht said. “They want to work, so they’re not like dragging or anything. They actually want to do it.”
While a business such as CALCan is a great opportunity for high-school students to hold a productive yet fun and meaningful part-time job, the meaning behind the venture speaks deeper volumes to the parents of the three around whom the business is centered.
All six parents of the three boys— who are all co-owners of the company— are just as active in the processes of the business as the six employees, from the planting of the seeds to the delivery of the produce.
“The most exciting part has been watching the boys go from, in the very beginning, having to literally walk them step-by-step through the process, and then as we get going, now they feel comfortable enough and take the initiative on their own to know what comes next, and they’ll finish one thing and be able to move on to the next without having to have someone intervene,” said Kris Myers, Colby and Sydney’s mother. “Watching them grow independently, I think, is the best part.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen anyone work harder than these boys,” Kris said.
As a special education teacher, Andrés’ mother, Marisol Perez, has a special place in her heart for CALCan and its mission: “to enhance the lives of our local citizens with disabilities by providing the opportunities for personal success and meaningful employment.”
“I’m a special ed teacher, so I’m all for giving opportunities to people with disabilities,” Perez said. “I thought this was a great opportunity, not only for the kids, but to be an example for other people to create these job opportunities.”
Perez was planting seeds Saturday morning, but said she is involved with the entire process through the harvesting of the produce.
Tim Gerhardt said that particular Saturday was going pretty well, in regards to progress. He spent the morning and early afternoon both in the greenhouse and picking up those at the farmers market once they were finished.
“Saturday we’re trying to move everything. So we’re moving the plants that are too big in the nursery over to the finishing channels,” Tim said. “We’re moving stuff out of seeding into the nursery and planting more seeds and watering them. We’re making that shift. Everything’s moving forward on Saturday.”
Once produce is packaged and ready to sell, it goes to the local farmers market, one of 18 Hy-Vee stores or one of three Whole Foods stores across northeast Kansas and part of Kansas City, Missouri, Tim said.
While a big focus right now is on improving profitability for the business, which would mean shipping at least 100 cases of product per week, the profits are not what is most rewarding to Tim, even as a co-owner of CALCan.
“The great thing about it is the parents are committed to success of the business—obviously for the benefit of the family—but it’s great for us to see the kids come to work, be productive, earn a paycheck,” Tim said. “The most rewarding thing is seeing them come out and be productive.”
Tim said that while right now there is one 6,000 square-foot greenhouse, the three-year plan is to increase the number of greenhouses across northeast Kansas and ultimately have 50,000 square-feet of greenhouse space, which would allow the business to include more families.
“I think a lot of our kids that are here now will be helpful, maybe instrumental, in training others as they get started,” Tim said.
But of all the owners and employees working at CALCan, three constant smiles on Saturday showed, without the need for words, to whom the business meant the most. But those three, who have been friends before CALCan was even incepted, had words to share anyway.
“Doing the labor,” Luke Gerhardt cited as his favorite part of working at CALCan. “So, doing stuff outside and then going in [to the greenhouse] and helping out. And harvesting. Normally I help my dad out, opening doors and with transport.”
Multiple people named the weekly harvesting day as their favorite part of CALCan, and Andrés was no exception.
“Harvesting,” Andrés said. “You get to put things in boxes and then you put them in a refrigerated trailer.
And working with Colby and Luke. It’s pretty fun, neat. It’s pretty fun. That way we can work together as teams.” And Colby returned in the early afternoon from selling produce at the farmers market, just as energetic as his two companions. As far as the work at CALCan itself, he named a particular task he favors.
“To water and seed the plants,” Colby said. “I’m just loving my job here.”
But in regards to working with Luke and Andrés?
“Good. I love it,” Colby said. “They’re one of my best friends.”
All three boys said they plan to continue working at CALCan for the foreseeable future, as did parents and family members.
Spending time at the CALCan greenhouse makes it difficult to decipher whether CALCan is a business or an organization focused on camaraderie. The simple answer is, it’s both.