Pickles — farm to jar — made by young adults at Opportunity Knocks

By Jean Lotus Staff Reporter

Staff Sam Kehoe, OK Volunteer Tommy McCahill, Warrior Katrina Jeffries and Warrior Sonya Taylor wash off freshly picked cucumbers. (Photo courtesy of Opportunity Knocks)

Sometimes a pickle is just a pickle. But sometimes, it’s a Knock Out pickle, served up farm-to-jar by the folks at Opportunity Knocks, a River Forest-based enrichment program that serves about 100 developmentally disabled young adults.

Opportunity Knocks, or “OK” added urban farming to the menu this year, using donated land near the ReUse Depot in Maywood.

“We grew 25 different crops this summer,” said OK President Phil Carmody. “But cucumbers were our central crop. We generated about 800 pounds of produce this year and about 450 pounds were cucumbers.”

Carmody said the organization was looking for a social enterprise business to generate revenue while providing employment for “the Warriors.”

Carmody, whose younger brother John has Down Syndrome, came up with the affectionate name for participants, to acknowledge their perseverance and hard work.

The pickle production process consists of a two-day-per-week stint in the community center’s industrial kitchens. Warriors Patrick O’Rourke and Sonya Taylor are paid part-time to prepare about 40 jars of Knock Out pickles a session.

Sonya, in particular, is excited about her paycheck.

“I feel so proud,” she is quoted on the organization’s website. “I cannot wait to show it to all my friends and my mother and my brother. And it’s my money, so I get what I want.”

“Warrior” Ryan Gravely, OK Staff Serena Smith, Volunteer Tommy McCahill, Volunteer Fillipo Mongiardini and “Warrior” Mike White plant crops at the Opportunity Knocks Farm in Maywood. (Photo courtesy of Opportunity Knocks)

“Patrick truly enjoys making pickles,” said Patrick’s mother, Margaret O’Rourke on the website. “The job gives him such a sense of pride and accomplishment.”

Creating jobs with the business is part of the business plan, Carmody said.

With the help of nutritionist and OK culinary expert Joe Hart, Patrick and Sonya snap on their gloves and chop bins of cucumbers. The cukes are layered in the bottoms of one-quart jars and covered with a vinegary brine, heated with care by Hart. The group makes “refrigerator pickles,” which are meant to be chilled and last a few months in the fridge, because that recipe is simpler, Hart said.

Three variations are prepared: Dill pickles (made with garlic), spicy dills and a “deli-style” pickle that adds a bit of sugar to the brine, Hart said.

Trellised cucumber plants and their harvest at the Opportunity Knocks mini-farm. (Photo courtesy of Joe O’Meara)

Taylor and O’Rourke are required to measure ingredients carefully and set up each jar systematically – all good skills that will serve them in the future.

The OK participants who attend the organization’s Life Shop activities make a multi-gallon vat of pickles once a week as an activity. These go to local restaurants.

To start the farmette, Carmody and OK approached the University of Illinois Cook County Extension Service for soil and water testing. Rather than dig into the soil, volunteers — including ReUse Depot founder Kyle FitzGerald — built growing boxes, screened on the bottoms and filled with clean dirt.

Enter Blue Island-based urban farmer Joe O’Meara, who consulted with OK to create the best gardening environment. O’Meara built trellises to train the cucumber vines to grow vertically, making it easier to pick the green cukes with limited mobility. The result: walls of cucumber vines dangling with green vegetables.

For FitzGerald, a specialist in historic home deconstruction and preservation, using the land around ReUse Depot is another example of maximizing resources. Proviso Partners for Health also tills a small farm plot on the property, and a beekeeper brought hives with 300,000 bees last summer, which generated enough honey to sell at the shop, FitzGerald said.

“No one even got stung this summer, and I think that’s amazing,” he said.

Opportunity Knocks was created as a program for young men and women with disabilities to attend after they age out of special education high school classes at age 22.

Sonya Taylor and Patrick O’Rourke (in pickle costume) help prepare cucumbers to be made into Knock Out pickles at the River Forest Community Center (Photo courtesy of Opportunity Knocks)

The program started small with the donated proceeds of a 2009 charity softball game and grew into a $638,000 program, according to the organization’s 2016 annual report. Primarily a private-pay enrichment program, the group is supported by donations and fundraising events such as a chili cook-off, a gala ball, block party and, of course, a softball tournament.

Knock Out pickles cost $10 for a quart jar from OK, and are sold in stores around Oak Park, including Sugarbeet Grocery Coop, Carnival Meats and Old School Tavern & Grill in Forest Park.

To find out more go to www.opportunityknocksnow.org



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