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Nonprofit in Arizona offers employment opportunities for adults with disabilities

Posted at 10:45 PM, May 03, 2021

TUCSON, Ariz. — Tucked up against A-Mountain, on the west side of Tucson, you’ll find a nursery filled with all sorts of things.

"I take care of the plants and flowers," says Desert Survivors employee, Rose-Anna Cook.

Rose-Anna is just one of the 40 employees using her green thumb at this well-oiled machine called Desert Survivors.

"We teach them what it means to have a job and all the etiquette that goes along with that," says executive director Karen Wilson. We’re trying to get them to a point where they can go out and get a community job."

The non-profit started back in the 1980s with just a few employees. Fast forward to today and the operation is bigger and better than ever.

"We have a contract with the state of Arizona and the money we get from that contract pays our support staff," says Wilson. "All the money we get from our plant sales pays the paychecks of the folks that we serve."

Desert Survivors is open to the public. And as you can imagine, running a full-fledged four-acre nursery is no easy task.

"The guys are weeding, taking care of plants," says Program Services Director, David Garcia. "They’re also keeping things organized, making sure that there’s a water source to them."

And get this: everything in stock is native to the Sonoran Desert.

"We actually have over 800 species of different native plants here," says Wilson.

Things like…

"We got velvet mesquite, we’ve got fruit trees. You see it out in the desert, we’ve got it," says Garcia.

But these plants don’t just appear out of nowhere.

"The majority of our plants are propagated on site off of seed, off of trimming, off their mother plants. Our Desert Survivors nursery team also propagates seeds out in the desert. A couple of times a year you’ll see them out in the hills looking for new species," says Garcia.

So, why plants?

"There is just something about working with the earth, working with plants, it’s very, very calming," says Wilson.

And forget being cooped up in an office all day.

"I like being outside. I like working outside doing hard work, you know," says Desert Survivors employee, Angel Varele.

"Out here, they’ve got room, they can spread out," says Wilson. "If they’re not feeling so good about something, there’s an area they can sit and calm down. It really just is a magical place."

Things have certainly changed in the last 40 years, but the secret to success is still the same.

"We think of ourselves as that wonderful place where everybody gets along together despite their differences," says Wilson.

A program that’s not only nurturing plants…

"I have been doing great so far here," says Cook.

But people, too.

The Nursery is open Tuesday through Saturday, 8 a.m. - 4 p.m. Click here for a list of available plants.

Mark Charter at KGUN first published this story.