When COVID-19 shut down a school for special needs students, one pupil used the time to embark on a new venture. This venture is helping feed the food insecure and giving those with special needs the chance to help improve their community.
Nineteen-year-old Paige Cook, who is on the autism spectrum and mostly non-verbal, was learning agriculture job skills at TERI Inc.’s The Country School in San Marcos, California. She had gotten really attached to working in the raised-bed gardens at a TERI group home. When the pandemic hit and the campus closed, she was left without this important lifeline.
However, her teacher Meghan Hoppes had an idea to help her continue doing this task that she enjoyed so much. Hoppes invited Paige and her mother Malinda Dalton-Cook over to her home to pick fruit from the grapefruit, lemon, and orange trees in her yard.
Dalton-Cook says, “So with masks on, a plastic tub that I found in my garage, gloves and garden shears we met Paige’s teacher and started picking the fruit. Holy smokes … I knew Paige loved a task but was blown away with her hustle.”
With their harvest that day, mother and daughter left some of the fruit at the homes of staff members from Paige’s school. As time wore on, they found other gardeners, farms, and organizations that would allow them to collect fruits and veggies for people in need.
The effort has grown enough that their work has now become an official nonprofit: Paige’s Pantry. Each week, producers will donate their fruits and veggies or allow Paige and her mother to pick them. Then, the pantry distributes the donations to church groups or directly to families facing food insecurity.
How do they bag and deliver these increasing contributions? With the help of volunteers on the autism spectrum.
Dalton-Cook says, “Part of the plan is to help them develop job skills. Even if they can only open a bag and hold it open while someone else puts stuff inside, that’s great. Even if they can only move produce from point A to point B, that’s great. We can work with everyone.”
She adds that this sort of opportunity is important because there aren’t many programs for adults with autism. Through volunteering with Paige’s Pantry, Dalton-Cook hopes they can learn and thrive. She says Paige has learned communication skills, typed out weekly letters, and set administrative goals.
Another volunteer who has been helped by the program is 21-year-old Denise Padilla, who bags the produce. Her mother Rose drives her in every week and is grateful that Denise has something to which she can commit her time. The older she gets, the fewer chances she has to do so.
Rose explains, “For Denise, especially, now that she’s out of the school system, things for her to do are kind of hard to find. And that’s a very typical situation for people with developmental disabilities that are either over 22 or they exited out of the school system.”
With a lack of services for young adults on the spectrum, they’re less apt to find employment and may find it harder to maintain connections with people.
Dalton-Cook hopes Paige’s Pantry can help. Her dream is to move the operation into a warehouse, if they can get enough donations and produce to make that possible. At that point, she’d like to start turning the volunteers into paid employees. Until then, they’re open to any volunteers on the spectrum.
To find out more about Paige’s Pantry, check out their website.Whizzco