Staffing shortage solution offers chance for more inclusion in Metro Detroit businesses

In the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, when employers across the region suffered critical staffing shortages a solution often seemed unattainable. Until, for several grateful businesses, Dutton Farm in Rochester stepped in. 

The thriving non-profit has been able to place employees with disabilities in restaurants and businesses across the area and it’s a welcome boost for everyone involved, according to Dutton Farm CEO Jenny Brown. 

“This staffing shortage has brought a lot of opportunities for Dutton Farm to place our people with employers and the employers seem to have a fresh perspective now, so it’s opened up doors for individuals to get jobs if they want one,” Brown says.

Lisa Friedrich, chief program officer for Dutton Farm, says right now their list of employed clients has soared to 23 with eight more waiting in the wings for placements. Since each employee is accompanied on the job by a state-certified job coach, Friedrich is working now to fill those positions too. 

George Hamilton and his job coach, L'uan, are helping HomeGrown Brewing Company.The job coaches provide advocacy and emotional support for the employees working one-on-one with them during their shifts, smoothing the transition process.

“The job coaches are employed by Dutton Farm and we vet each one and they have extensive training overseen by the state,” Friedrich says.
“After the state opened back up from COVID, we had more employer referrals coming to us and we have really been rolling, let me tell you,” Friedrich says. “And now there’s more of an understanding of the talent and the skill levels we have here.”

Founding a farm for “Becca” 

Dutton Farm is a non-profit special education school founded in 2010 in Rochester, with the aim to "inspire others to see all people with disabilities treated with equality.”

In this case, leading the charge fell to Brown who wanted to support her younger sister, Rebecca “Becca” Smither, now 41, who has Down Syndrome. After they both graduated from high school, Brown quickly realized she was moving on to adventures with friends at college, plus employment prospects, while Smither's world seemed to stall.

“My life just looked so different from hers, it seemed like hers stopped after high school,” Brown says. “So instead of going to law school I started this non-profit for Becca and her friends and it was originally just skill-building to get jobs at first and then it evolved.”

Gardening, working with farm animals, and daily living skills are part of the Adult Special Education programs at Dutton Farm. Partnering with Michelle Smither, mom to both Brown and Smither, and after a donation of property by their father, Jim Smither, Dutton Farm was up and running. Located along Dutton Road, the farm has now grown to include gardens and farm animals. A desire to ready their adult clients with disabilities for the workforce saw the organization adopting three main goals; providing access to the community, providing workplace skills for greater independence, and helping clients obtain suitable employment. 

Brown said each person is evaluated as an individual and finding out what they like, what they are good at, and how they will adapt to a job including physical and emotional abilities along with stamina, are all part of the program. 

Breaking barriers

Despite the in-roads made during the pandemic, in 2020 more than 80% of persons with a disability were still unemployed in the U.S., an increase since 2019. When working with potential employers, Brown says the biggest hurdle is just letting them know what resources are already in place and how they can benefit all involved.

“At first, yes, there’s a nervousness, not angst or displeasure, it’s just doing something new but within two weeks we get feedback from employers and they are always pleased and pleasantly surprised,” Brown says.

There are logistical challenges the team has to work around too. "Transportation is a big issue, as well as the outdated model of interviewing, and the requirement of a driver's license for job applications," says Brown. "Most of the people we serve do not drive."

Rebecca Smither, pictured here with Lava Mountain Coffee owners Ziad Kassab and Chris Barnett, enjoys her job as a barista at the Lake Orion coffee shop.But it's worth it. Rebecca Smithers will be the first to share that her work as a barista, at Lava Mountain Coffee in Lake Orion, makes her feel "important" and valued.

"I like doing things by myself," she says. "When I learned how to do the register myself it made me proud."

"People can do a lot of things, you just have to be patient. I love work.”

Empowering participants

Stories from other clients from the farm are equally upbeat, and Brown loves to share "Kevin’s" story. A man in his mid-40’s who found work, after decades without employment, and had one plan for his first-ever paycheck — taking his mom out to dinner. 

“It was such a pleasant opportunity for him because this time he wasn’t the recipient, this was his opportunity to give to his mother and she was so emotional, it was wonderful,” Brown says.

Friedrich echoes those sentiments and as an example, she said there’s a "young lady who just loves animals", worked well with those on the farm and she recently landed a position with Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester, as a puppy trainer.

Then there’s George Hamilton, who had been looking for employment for three years before the pandemic produced staffing shortages and he finally got his shot. He now spends four hours a week working at HomeGrown Brewing Company in Oxford. 

Jeff Powers, the general manager at HomeGrown Brewing, says his family-run business has been in Oxford for four years and has been one of many restaurants that encountered staffing issues this summer. Since they have a “prep heavy kitchen without packaged foods” the need for extra help was essential. Already a supporter of fundraisers for Dutton Farm, Powers says when the opportunity to employ some individuals from the organization came up it was an easy fit.

“The tasks here were straightforward and training was easy, and we have a good solid environment to train people here so it’s been great,” Powers says.

Andrew "Drew" McDonald prepares Ramen noodles as part of his work at HomeGrown Brewing Company in Oxford. Photo: Joe Powers.

Hamilton and another Dutton Farm client, Andrew "Drew" McDonald, work on tasks at the brewery, like peeling beets, setting up portion servings of Raman noodles, and preparing the dough for pretzel bites. Powers said the pretzel bites are such a popular menu item that they were running out of them every weekend simply because they didn’t have the staff to prepare them. 

“Last weekend was the first weekend in a year that we didn’t run out of them,” Powers says.

“It seems like a pretty minimal thing they are doing but it’s definitely helping us out and I would even like to see this program expanded in the future.”

George Hamilton's dedication to preparing pretzel bites is one of the reasons HomeGrown Brewing Company has been able to keep up with demand for the specialty dish. Photo: Joe Powers.

Creating new avenues 

Today, Dutton Farm has placed workers at businesses all over Oakland County and some spots in Macomb County as well. Lava Mountain Coffee now employs six individuals from Dutton Farm, including the beloved Smither. She spends one afternoon a week working there, passing out smiles and spreading a joy that simply comes naturally to her. 

“Oh my gosh, I absolutely love Becca, she is so amazing, working with her just makes my day,” Lava Mountain Coffee manager Tori Fisher says. “She’s just so bright and always so happy and ready to get things done here, she’s just a wonderful person.”

The employment opportunity for Smither and the other Dutton Farm clients came about over the last year and it’s certainly worked to everyone’s advantage. Fisher says they each have a variety of duties, including ringing up customer orders, serving coffee and pastries, and cleaning as needed.

Hoping to continue to support the farm and its clients, Brown branched out further last year, opening a 3,000-square-foot warehouse and retail business in Pontiac called Everybody, Inc. They manufacture and ship products like bath soap, body oils, shampoos, and bath bombs. 

Brown says she employs those with disabilities and also those who simply have trouble finding steady work. She’s proud to note that this new venture has created 1,700 employment hours over the last 21 months.

“All the profits from Everyone Inc. come right back to Dutton Farm,” Brown says.

Everybody Inc. produces bath soap, body oils, shampoos, and bath bombs, with profits going back to Dutton Farm. Photo: Supplied.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.