Sometimes the slightest connection can change the trajectory of an entire community.

And that is exactly what happened when Piper Phillips Caswell, CEO of the nonprofit Phillips Programs for Children and Families, visited with her former exchange student Markus Lubawinksi from Berlin.  

Phillips serves children ages 5-22 with special needs and emotional and behavioral health challenges. Caswell told Lubawinski about the critical need for new avenues for job training and development for youth with behavioral health needs.

These students are four times less likely to find employment, let alone sustainable employment with a sustainable wage. Phillips was interested in creating opportunities to address the underemployment and unemployment of these youth transitioning from school to employment.

“I believe that being open to new ideas can take you in unforseen and unbelievably positive directions,” reflected Caswell as she shared how a chance conversation ended up opening the first vertical farm in a school setting in the Baltimore-Washington region.

Lubawinksi suggested she get in touch with a friend of his named Henry Gordon-Smith who had just opened a consulting firm in Brooklyn, NY that was focused on developing innovative urban agriculture projects around the world. He predicted that there could be jobs created through building a vertical farm and that the skills might meld well with the student population at Phillips.

He was right.

Caswell invited Gordon-Smith and his team to Phillips to view the program to see if it might be a feasible option for her students. At the time, Gordon-Smith’s firm Blue Planet Consulting (today called Agritecture Consulting) was in its infancy and Phillips was a perfect test ground for the new start-up company.  

“Our firm saw the opportunity to help so many students and at the same time beta-test some of our vertical farming design methodologies,” said Gordon-Smith. “It was a perfect fit.”

Caswell and Gordon-Smith agreed to partner to set up a program that would lead students to job opportunities in the rapidly emerging Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) sector. The Blue Planet team built a unique hydroponic system for the school along with a 300-page curriculum to teach sustainability and basic CEA practices.





Phillip’s named the program “Growing Futures” and it focuses on teaching students valuable agri-business and culinary arts skills through science-based education.

The program was named as such to compliment Phillips Programs existing "Building Futures" program where students are taught how to build houses which are then sold on the open market. Agricultural specialist, Julie Buisson, manages the farm operations for Growing Futures.



Caswell said it has been “immensely successful” since its inception three years ago and thinks it has huge potential to impact many students in the future.  

“The program has been remarkable,” said Caswell. “It’s a game-changer for the kids by giving them authentic job experience and opportunities.”



Fresh, local, and good. Phillips students grow their own food futures. 

Fresh, local, and good. Phillips students grow their own food futures. 


The system Agritecture built for Phillips inspired the that is a do-it-yourself vertical farming model for schools or homes.

Fifteen students are currently enrolled in the vertical farming education initiative that grows various types of leafy greens, herbs and microgreens. A culinary program has spun-off of the farm and Phillips recently opened a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen to train students in the culinary arts professions.



Chef Jackson working with Phillips Students in the Culinary Arts and Farming Program.

Chef Jackson working with Phillips Students in the Culinary Arts and Farming Program.


“It is hard to fathom that a brief conversation three years ago has so dramatically impacted our Phillips community,” said Caswell. “It’s a testament to our students, their families and the greater community. And of course Henry and his team who helped make all of this a reality.”

Caswell said students will use both the farm and culinary programs as a stepping-stone to sustainable employment. Additionally, Caswell sees expanding to serve the 21 and over population in order to offer better job prospects down the road.  Currently, there is an 80 percent unemployment rate in the U.S. for individuals with disabilities, according to Caswell.

"Many of our students do not go onto college," said Caswell. "We see growing our program to give them more credentials as they go into the job market or as a way for them to be entrepreneurial in their own operation."

Recently, Phillips was approved for more government funding to assist their students’ transition out of high school by teaching entrepreneurial skills related to expanding Phillips’ business program called Springforward.

This post is a crosspost from Agritecture.  To read this article on that site, click here.