Ebonique Little, Contributing Writer
Organically grown fruits, vegetables and herbs sprawl across an acre of land in Richmond’s East End. Welcoming and providing jobs to people with neurological disorders, Frank Community Farm seeks a larger purpose than feeding the community.
Crystal Stokes, president of Frank Community Farm, and Rachel Matthews, vice president of training and behavioral support, founded the business in 2017 after realizing there were disparities in job placement for adults with autism.
“So I thought that my love intertwined — my love for farming and my love for the autism community — could make for a good space for people to learn workplace skills,” Stokes said.
Before going into business, Stokes and Matthews worked at the Dominion School for Autism as teacher’s assistants.
For Stokes, a fifth-generation farmer, this was the beginning of her journey within social work, marking a significant switch
from her past jobs in musical theater. She went on to work in case management and run group homes, or residences providing
care for those in need. Stokes said she was able to learn a lot from the individuals she served.
Matthews’ desire to help those with neurological disorders stemmed from a personal connection, as her brother has autism. Growing up, she worked at her church with twins Mathew and Tyler Frank, who also had autism.
“And so they were really a lot of what inspired me to get into this field, and to help children with autism, and eventually to get involved with starting a farm like this,” Matthews said.
Named after the twins, Frank Community Farm has a central mission: neurodiversity.
The concept encourages society to accept neurological disorders such as autism and ADHD as variations in functioning, rather than disabilities that must be cured, according to the farm’s website.
Frank Community Farm enlists up to six interns at a time, all led by Matthews. They are given various tasks to assess their interests and skills. Some duties include planting and harvesting, fulfilling product orders, making deliveries, producing teas and caring for chickens.
Rewards and a variety of other techniques are used to help the interns learn. Once they find their niche, they can complete these tasks on their own.
Matthews said the interns’ differences in thinking are beneficial to the workplace, and witnessing their growth is the most rewarding part of her job.
“Just seeing the progress that these guys make,” Matthews said, “and the joy that they get out of coming to work every day and having a place where they can come be a part of the community and really be themselves.”
However, the coronavirus has shifted the farm’s day-to-day operations and affected their ability to accept new interns.
Stokes and Matthews said they make an effort to socially distance the interns, which is difficult for those who require hands-on attention. Some struggle with staying away from their friends who they’ve grown accustomed to seeing every day, Matthews said.
The farm at 2218 Fenton St. hasn’t been able to sell produce at its stand or hold farming classes for the public, largely impacting revenue.
Despite these setbacks, Frank Community Farm adapted by delivering boxes of produce to the community — an idea of one of the interns — through a program called Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA.
“Many of our interns that are with us and interns that have left have really built our business,” Stokes said. “They are so creative, and the attention to detail is amazing. And they’re just great to have around.”
Through the CSA program, the farm has reached 60 people every week among Richmond’s vulnerable populations.
The farm donates the rest of their produce to local organizations such as Mutual Aid District RVA and Richmond Food Justice Alliance, volunteer partnerships helping Richmond’s food insecure communities.
As Stokes has enjoyed feeding Richmonders in need, she hopes the farm can be more community-focused after the coronavirus subsides.
“There’s not many community gardens, so we hope to start a community garden next year,” Stokes said. “And just continue to do what we’re doing — providing more employment for adults who are neurodivergent and educating people about neurodiversity and why it should be celebrated.”