Farming nonprofit to help those with special needs grows in Ridgefield: ‘A win-win all the way around’

RIDGEFIELD — When Kevin Berger was in high school, his mother, CeCe Berger, began thinking of services that would be available for him when he graduated.

“Because we live in this southwestern little tip of Fairfield County, there wasn't a lot around here,” said Berger about her son, now 27, who has special needs.

She said she envisioned a place where others with special needs could be outdoors and learn new skills in a supportive work environment.

Through her efforts, her dream came true in 2018 when she founded Cornerstone Home & Gardens, a nonprofit organization where individuals with special needs can come, free of charge, and experience real-life work opportunities in gardening and farming, building and grounds maintenance, landscape design, and public relations.

The nonprofit has been going strong for four years. While it has had a one-year lease agreement with the town of Ridgefield, it’s in negotiations with the Board of Selectmen and Conservation Commission for a five-year lease agreement. The lease amount is $1 per year.

‘Safe, supportive environment’

Cornerstone, which is run by volunteers, operates on a portion of McKeon’s Arigideen Farm on Conservation Commission land on Old Stagecoach Road in Ridgefield.

The nonprofit, which is seasonal, is funded by private donations.

About eight people come to the farm every summer.

“There are people with different needs that come out that are enjoying the opportunity to work in a safe, outside, supportive environment,” said Berger, who teaches physical education at Scarsdale Middle School in New York.

“When we have a group that wants to come out, we work within our volunteer base and our board members and try to see if a few people can get there at the time that they're coming. We work with them within their schedule.”

The organization partners with the town's social services program in a three-year-old initiative called Dirty Hands, Full Plates.

Through the initiative, Cornerstone has provided hundreds of pounds of fresh, local produce each time the town has hosted a distribution, said Tony Phillips, Ridgefield’s social services director.

"We dreamt up this program with a few volunteers a few years ago with the idea of crowdsourcing fruit and vegetables from local gardeners, but could never get it off the ground,” Phillips said. “When the pandemic started to impact the food supply chain and cost of food for our clients with food insecurity, we knew it was time for us to move it from idea to action. Cornerstone Gardens was our first major partner who offered to provide free produce, and wow did they deliver. With just a handful of volunteers and a small plot of land, they contributed to our distribution between 1,400 and 2,500 pounds of food each summer.”

Phillips added the families who participate love the fresh local produce and look forward to it each summer.

Cornerstone also delivers produce to Meals on Wheels in Ridgefield.

At Cornerstone, Berger said the month of April involves garden preparation and kickstarting the garden off for the year.

In May, they do a lot of plantings.

“And then we just grow and harvest all the way to the fall and then put the garden to bed,” she said.

On Harvest Day, which is in May, Cornerstone helpers pick everything that's ready and put it in about 15 bags for families in need in town.

“Harvest days are usually huge, huge days,” Berger said. “We get 15 bags of beans, 15 bags of tomatoes, 15 bags of whatever we have, and we deliver them behind St Andrew's Lutheran Church in town.”

Since the nonprofit was founded, it has grown a great deal, Berger said.

“We've grown to have over 50 volunteers every year,” she said.

Community groups including Lion’s Heart volunteer group, Boy Scout troops, and Ridgefield High School senior summer interns help out at the farm.

This year, SPHERE, which helps adults with developmental disabilities, will also be helping at Cornerstone.

Through Cornerstone, Berger said her son has become a seasoned gardener — and has also learned many other life skills.

“He has some job skills in gardening and horticulture. He also has increased socialization because we deliver to Meals on Wheels and we've gone to events and had a lot of groups come through the garden,” Berger said.

“He has a place in his community, which is really important for a lot of people,” she added.

She said she’s thankful for the opportunity the community has provided Cornerstone over the past four years.

Looking towards the future

Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi said the organization has been “very successful.”

He said it gives individuals with special needs “an opportunity to be out in the middle of the field in a garden environment and seeing accomplishments,” he said. “It's also helped in terms of supplying farm-to-table type social service programs as well.”

He added Cornerstone is a “a win-win all the way around. It’s a good program. It's worth keeping and that's why we’re converting it to a longer lease.”

Berger said she hopes to make Cornerstone a year-round opportunity for those who want to be part of it.

“We would like to service more people and go full time,” she said.

She would also like for Cornerstone to have a year-round location.

“The location would have a nice work room, a bathroom, an office,” Berger said.

Additionally, she’s looking for an indoor facility.

“And then with that, hopefully hire a full-time staff to be able to take in more clients and provide something like a full day program,” she added.

“We want to keep moving along with our mission,” Berger said.

For more information or to donate, send an email to cornerstone home gardens@gmail.com or visit cornerstonegardens.org.

203-948-9802 sandra.fox@hearst.com