WEST BURLINGTON — About 30 students and recent graduates of area schools got their hands dirty and learned some important lessons Wednesday while helping out at Homestead 1839.

The students were there through the seven-week Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services Burlington Summer Career Boot Camp Program, which aims to expose students with individual education plans and disabilities to occupations in each of the six Iowa Core Career Pathways, as well as better equip them with workplace readiness skills such as communication, leadership, problem solving, listening and working with others.

Through the program, students who meet its eligibility requirements have the opportunity to tour and see presentations on places such as Big River Resources, the Burlington Police Department, Lock and Dam 19 Corp of Engineers and Lee County Conservation. They also are able to participate in hands-on simulations, such as the flight simulator at Indian Hills Community College and the manikins in Southeastern Community College's Health Professions Center.

But Wednesdays are reserved for Homestead.

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There, program participants work alongside owners Tobin and Mollie Krell planting pumpkins, setting up wire for blackberry bushes, mulching, braiding garlic and picking ripened tomatoes. The experience fits nicely with the agriculture, food, and natural resources career pathway.

It also gave the students an opportunity to contribute to the community. Homestead donates much of what is grown there to local food pantries and has been making deliveries to people unable to leave their homes. The significance of that impact was not lost on Ethan McGohan, a recent WACO High School graduate who turned 19 Wednesday and will study agriculture at SCC in the fall.

"It would be nice for people to give time and donate money to help them out," McGohan said. "That way they'd be putting food on the table for everybody."

Having grown up on a farm, McGohan is used to the kind of work that goes into it.

For others, the experience was unfamiliar.

Jared Levandoske, 17, of Burlington, said he's more of a sci-fi/action/horror kind of guy with a passion for robotics and gaming, but working on the organic farm has made him think about the possibility of starting one of his own one day. He also enjoys building things and was excited about rigging up the wire, which was run through holes that had been drilled into posts.

Others learned more about work ethic.

"I scooped and I scooped and I scooped (mulch)," Skylar Becklar, 15, of WACO High School said while the group took a break from their work to gather in a circle under the shade of a mulberry tree to reflect on moments of mindfulness they had throughout the day.

Becklar, in his second year participating in the camp, had been busy for a large part of the morning scooping mulch from a truck bed into wheelbarrows. Other students took the full wheelbarrows to other parts of the field where mulch was needed.

"He didn't want to do anything last year," said IVRS supervisor Cindy Whalen. "Now he's doing hard work."

The program was established through partnerships between Voc-Rehab, local school districts, the Burlington High School Transition Alliance Program, Southeastern Community College Intermediary Network, area business and Iowa Workforce partner agencies.

Whalen said being able to work with these students throughout the summer months better helps them further build on and solidify skills they work to accrue during school.

Behind the Homestead barn, Mollie Krell sat with a group of students braiding garlic and discussing healthy foods.

"McDonald's does not love you," she said in response to one student's admiration for the fast food restaurant.

While braiding garlic, the students reviewed how to tell if a tomato should be picked or left on the vine, as well as the purpose of mulch, which is to prevent weed growth.

BHS graduate Madison Smith, 18, picked off a couple cloves of garlic and inhaled their scent.

Smith recently began a job at Hy-Vee bagging groceries, though she soon will push carts. It's her first job and she admitted to being a bit nervous, but Becky Leurs, an IVRS counselor who helped match Smith with the job, reminded her of her customer service skills, her excellent memory and her ability to listen.

It is those kinds of skills that being exposed to a variety of environments can help to bring out.

"They may shine in a different element we've never seen them shine in before," said Kari Butler, who is in her first year with the BHS Transition Alliance Program and heard from students about the summer program throughout the school year.

Before the camp comes to a close Aug. 2, students at Homestead will be able to pick, clean, cut and pickle the farm's cucumber harvest, as well as make a scarecrow and tie-dyed bandanas for a future Homestead fundraiser.