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ACRES Project awarded $100,000 Centre Inspires grant to make aquaponics greenhouse a reality

A new addition will be coming to the ACRES Project ⁠— one that aims to create sustainable produce and entrepreneurial opportunities for adults with autism.

Founded in 2014 by retired State College Area School District special education instructor Bellamarie Bregar, ACRES — Adults Creating Residential & Employment Solutions — offers day programs, job support, social groups and book clubs. On Thursday, the nonprofit was awarded Centre Foundation’s $100,000 Centre Inspires grant to develop a community aquaponics greenhouse.

In March, Bregar told the Centre Daily Times that the nonprofit was working toward raising money to turn that dream into reality, selling soaps created by Acres of Joy members and seeking donations from individuals.

“Thank you to Centre Foundation for believing in our project,” Bregar said in a statement. “We want the greenhouse to be filled with people, plants and produce — a place where everyone has a seat at the table.”

After noticing a lack of employment and social opportunities for adults on the autism spectrum, Bregar wanted to create a place where adults could “have a good time and just be themselves,” she told the CDT in March. In addition to offering social opportunities, the ACRES Project, headquartered on a rural property on Bernel Road in Patton Township, helps teach adults job skills — like growing plants and food production.

The Acres of Joy program serves as the entrepreneurial portion of the project. Participants create all-natural, vegan and cruelty free soaps that can be found at the Pine Grove Mills Farmers Market. Aquaponics, an indoor farming method, will help the program become more efficient and use less resources.

The aquaponics system will grow microgreens at a rapid pace, going from seed to table in 45 days. In comparison to conventional agriculture, aquaponics uses 90% less water while producing 5 to 20 times more food per acres, without any pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers, according to the ACRES website.

“Adults with autism often have difficulty finding, keeping and achieving success on the job,” the website reads. “Impairments in social skills and organizational abilities leave many of these adults without employment or working a jobs they cannot sustain. Our aquaponics program will provide these adults with an employment opportunity that fits.”

Previous projects to receive the Centre Inspires grant include Strawberry Fields’ Good Day Cafe and Discovery Space’s community makerspace, The Rivet.

Marley Parish reports on local government for the Centre Daily Times. She grew up in Slippery Rock and graduated from Allegheny College.
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