COLUMBIA — Christy Craig giggles a lot as she goes about her work, but she focuses hard on the task at hand. She carefully fills a pot with soil — about two-thirds full is the perfect amount. She delicately places a stem into the soil, right in the center of the pot. Then she gives it the final touch, a plant tag, as a wide smile spreads across her face.
Craig, 45, exudes a sense of accomplishment, but she has more plants to pot, so she continues with the routine at the Giving Garden, the newest business at Central Missouri Subcontracting Enterprises, formerly Sheltered Enterprises. Potting plants and working alongside friends are her favorite parts of the job, but on this day she also was excited about her paycheck.
“I’m going to buy crayons,” said Craig, an avid colorer.
Giving Gardens is to officially open as a retail greenhouse in about two weeks. CMSE provides jobs to people with disabilities who otherwise might have trouble finding work. About 130 employees with various disabilities perform greenhouse labor and work in manufacturing-type jobs for major companies such as 3M and Otscon.
Aside from the obvious benefits — a job and a paycheck — working in the greenhouse is healthy and therapeutic, said Julie Krugg, a professor in the MU department of occupational therapy.
“In a workshop, you’re not as invested in the outcome," Krugg said. "In horticulture, people tend to get much more invested in the outcome.”
“Seeing something go from nothing to something to something sellable can be very meaningful to individuals. Engaging the mind and body makes people feel purposeful and has a huge impact on quality of life.”
Like many of her colleagues, Craig far prefers working in the greenhouse.
“I love it,” Craig said, wearing a magenta shirt, latex gloves and a sparkling floral hair clip.
Employee manager Fran Schneider sees the difference between employees who work in the greenhouse and those who do assembly line work. She watched as one man worked diligently potting plants.
“When he’s in the building, he’s not terribly motivated," Schneider said. "When he’s out here, he’s working and he’s happy.”
The greenhouse started as a means to create income after many companies were forced to drop CMSE from their payrolls amid a growing recession.
“Because of the economy, some pulled back into house," Executive Director Bruce Young said. "A number of companies sent jobs overseas."
A few companies have since renewed their contracts, but the greenhouse has allowed CMSE to hire even more employees who had waited for work during a hiring freeze.
“We didn’t hire anyone for 16 months because of the lack of jobs,” Schneider said.
Young was talking with his friend Bill Reagan at a Rotary Club meeting about losing a major contract when Reagan suggested the greenhouse. Reagan has a master’s degree in horticulture from MU and ran his own greenhouse for 35 years. He decided to come out of retirement to help Young make the greenhouse a reality.
“I kind of needed a job, and it all fell into place,” Reagan said.
With help from ABC Labs, CMSE was able to store its plants through the winter as the greenhouse was prepared.
“They learned of our plight and loaned greenhouse space,” Reagan said.
New employee Mike Pitts, 40, also enjoys working in the greenhouse. Pitts, 40, moved to Columbia from Marshall to be closer to his family, which is in St. James.
He struggled to make ends meet on $30 a month for two years while he waited for an open position with Central Missouri Subcontracting Enterprises.
“I sat at home and did nothing,” he said.
Pitts was hired in January when Central Missouri renewed contracts with major companies and started the greenhouse. With nursery experience under his belt from a previous job at a Marshall greenhouse, he likes to teach his co-workers how to work with plants.
“Some people just don’t know how to do it,” he said. “”You just gotta take your time to work with people.”
With the money he earns working with the Central Missouri Subcontracting Enterprises, he is saving up for a plane ticket to California to visit his brother.
“I haven’t seen him in 10 years,” Pitts said.
Now that the employees are at work, Reagan is focusing on an April 23 ribbon cutting at the greenhouse at 4040 S. Bearfield Road.
“We plan to sell our product and be a successful business in our own way,” he said.
The employees are excited about meeting customers and selling their bedding plants, herbs, vegetables and hanging baskets when the greenhouse opens. Although the ceremony is set for April 23, plant sales are set to begin Thursday, according to its Web site.