Vince Lovenduski of Upper Yoder Township was a popular figure at Starbucks in Richland Towship. As manager for 10 years, he knew most of his regular customers by name and most knew him as well.
He worked long hours and had a lot of responsibility – as good managers generally do. So, when he retired in 2019, everyone – including Vince – assumed he would relax and enjoy life.
But Vince had a couple of passions that did not leave him – even in retirement. He loved Johnstown and he wanted to make a difference in the lives of people with disabilities.
This year, Vince plans to open a business that will incorporate both of his passions.
Retirement – at least for now – is not part of the plan.
In January, Vince purchased the former Flower Barn in Westmont and, in April, plans to reopen it this spring as a greenhouse/nursery that will employ and train people with disabilities – of any kind.
The venture is being called SEADS of Love, which stands for Sustainable Employment for Adults with Disabilities. Lovenduski says his wife, Shelly, came up with the name.
“It will be open to the public,” he says. “Those employed will be paid minimum wage and will have all kinds of training. Most will have one-on-one mentoring. We want to match abilities with their job functions. Our goal is a 75 percent retention rate.
“Most of the time, people with disabilities feel isolated. They get their Social Security check and it is implied that they are to sit in front of the television screen and do nothing. They are marginalized.
“Our goal is to get them out in the public so they no longer are isolated.”
The Lovenduskis know firsthand what a difference self-esteem and interaction with others has on those with disabilities. Their 22-year-old son, Austin, has special needs. “The more engaged he is with people and society, the better he does,” Vince says.
Some might say fate had a hand in the evolution of SEADS of Love, but Lovenduski has a different explanation. “It was a God-moment,” he says, recalling how a radio station he was listening to while driving was interrupted by a few words from a commercial being broadcast on another frequency. “All I heard was ‘Smile Farms, employment for adults with disabilities,’” he says. “That’s all I heard. I got home and went online and learned all about them.”
After research, the Lovenduskis made a trip to Long Island, New York, to see the place for themselves.
To say they were impressed, is to put it mildly. “They (the disabled employees) show you a plant and say, ‘Look what I grew.’ And they are just beaming,” Vince says. “They have a sense of purpose. They have self esteem.
“It was a tear-jerker.”
The couple spoke to the executives at Smile Farms. “I asked them if they would come to Johnstown (and open a Smile Farm here). But they said they could not do that at this time,” Vince says. “So, I looked at my wife and said, ‘OK, we’re going to do it.’”
Vince says the project was more than he wanted to take on. “I’m retired and I wanted to do something casual.” But, he says, “everything has really fallen into place.
“I’m nervous and scared, but we have good people supporting us and I couldn’t be happier.” Vince says the project has been embraced by the whole family, including the couple’s other son, Bradon, who has been a big help.
SEADS of Love will be run by a board of directors. Ron McIntosh, local horticulturist and former host of “Green Grower” on WJAC-TV, will serve as greenhouse/nursery manager. Cara Lichtenfels will be assistant manager.
Vince says he initially plans to employ 12 to 15 special needs workers and be open 10 months a year. Eventually, he would like to double or even triple the number of employees. “I know I am going to be flooded with applications,” he says. “That is going to be very hard – to turn somebody down.”
Support for the project has been more than expected, Vince says, noting that it is something nearly everyone has experienced first-hand. “Tell me what family has not been touched by people with disabilities.”
Vince hopes SEADS of Love becomes a sustainable charitable organization that lasts for many years. “This is not about me,” he says. “I want this to grow long after I am in the ground.”
A fund for SEADS of Love has been set up through Community Foundation for the Alleghenies.