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HandsOn Jacksonville challenges volunteers to dig in

Berry Good Farms among many volunteer opportunities around area

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – HandsOn Jacksonville's annual push to get area residents to commit to volunteering next year has a lofty goal: 100,000 pledged volunteer hours.

News4Jax is helping with that goal by hosting a phone bank from 5-7 p.m. Tuesday where viewers can call in to pledge their hours for 2017.

This year's theme is “What can your hands do?”

HandsOn Jacksonville, a social services organization, can help residents find volunteer opportunities in the community -- opportunities like North Florida School of Special Education's Berry Good Farms.

Volunteers can get their hands dirty planting and digging up crops with students with Down syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome, traumatic brain injury or autism.

The crops are grown by the students as part of a transition program to help young adults with special needs learn different trades they can use in the workforce.

It all starts inside the Berry Good Farms green house, where the students plant the seeds. Once the plant grows to a certain size, it's either sold or planted outside in the garden.

It's a lot of work that requires the help of volunteers.

"We wanted to do something, especially during the holidays, a little more meaningful than volunteering at the thrift shop," said volunteer Amber Marceau, a leasing manager.

Many of the volunteers are recruited through HandsOn Jacksonville.

"Our volunteers are vital to our programs flourishing, enriching the lives of our students and enriching the lives of our volunteers,” Berry Good Farms director Ellen Hiser said.

And the students said they enjoy interacting with the volunteers.

"I like how new people come in, and I like to see them learn new things,” said 18-year-old Hunter Daws, who is in the school's transition program.

Some of the crops are used for the school's lunches or are sold to local food stores or used for the Berry Good Farms food truck.

The students also make dog treats.

"All the kids and young adults here, all they want to do is give love, and it's just heartwarming,” said Karen Western, who has volunteered at the farm for a year now.

She said the smiles from the students are contagious.

“When you come here, you don't want to leave,” Western said.

Whether you decide to help out on the farm or volunteer doing something else in the community, every little bit can make a difference, officials said.

To check out some of the crops at Berry Good Farms, make a donation or volunteer, go to http://www.northfloridaschool.org/berry-good-farms.