KIRKLAND – A local resident has been recognized by the village of Kirkland for his role in creating programs for adults with disabilities.
The Greater Kirkland Chamber of Commerce and Northwestern Medicine awarded Gene Heinsohn the Kirkland Citizen of the Year award Thursday at the Kirkland Public Library. The award is given for significant public service and improving the quality of life in the area, according a nomination posting.
Heinsohn said he believes he won the award for establishing Walnut Grove Vocational Farm, 33600 Pearl St., and for his work with the Kirkland Lions Club.
"It's a very humbling and fantastic honor," Heinsohn said. "I grew up in Kirkland and the small town feeling is something I've always enjoyed."
Walnut Grove Vocational Farm encompasses 10 of the 280 acres of farmland the Heinsohn family owns and provides an environment for adults with disabilities to learn agricultural and horticultural skills. Jobs include greenhouse production, vegetable gardening, livestock care and sales.
Heinsohn said he came up with the idea for the farm in 2014, when is then 20-year-old son Scott, who has Down syndrome, was nearing the end of a transition program.
"I had been planning it for a long time, and I've just always wanted a place for people with special needs to get vocational training after high school," Heinsohn said. "There are very little opportunities to do anything."
The work that is done on the farm gives adults who are no longer in transition programs the skills they need get jobs, Heinsohn said. Many local businesses are starting to recognize the fact that adults with disabilities can contribute, he said.
His son, now 25, works at Klein's Quality Produce in Hampshire and mows lawns on neighboring farms.
"Several individuals have gained employment from what they've done at Walnut Grove," Heinsohn said.
One such transitional program, Life School in Sycamore, helped three adults with intellectual disabilities get internships at Kishwaukee Hospital. As a part of the program, interns will work in a variety of settings from assisting in diagnostic imaging to pediatrics.
The DeKalb County Community Gardens, which uses the 10-acre Walnut Grove Vocational Farm, works with Life School, the Gracie Center in Kingston and the DeKalb High School transition programs.
As a member of the Kirkland Lion's club, Heinsohn has helped raise money for the local sports teams and the Kirkland Food Pantry, First Lutheran/The United Methodist Church, 510 W. South St., Kirkland.