It’s not news that people with disabilities encounter significant obstacles in their attempts to find employment. Increasingly, parents of young adults with disabilities are finding ways to create vocational opportunities for their children by starting their own businesses and hiring their children and others with disabilities. Through these enterprises, individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities gain valuable work experience while also being gainfully employed in an area where they have interest.
In January 2021, Malinda Dawson-Cook started Paige’s Pantry, a nonprofit based in North County, San Diego, where her daughter Paige, a 19-year-old teen with autism and a love of fruit picking and gardening, is now employed. Paige’s Pantry provides produce to food insecure families in the North County area while it also trains young adults on the autism spectrum.
Paige, who is mostly nonverbal, has been a student at TERI Inc.’s The Country School in San Marcos, since she was 12. The school focuses on social and vocational training rather than academics and Paige has made good progress there. Her favorite activity at school is tending raised garden beds at a group home affiliated with the school.
As Paige’s teacher, Meghan Hoppes told Pam Kragen of the San Diego Union-Tribune she was impressed with Paige’s focus and work ethic. “Paige is really industrious,” Hoppes said. “She likes to work, she works hard and when she completes a task, she moves on to the next one. She’s a take-charge sort of person.”
But when the pandemic hit, Paige’s gardening and socialization training were interrupted. So, Hoppes, an Escondito, California, resident, invited Paige and her mother to come to her house to pick fruit from her orange, lemon and grapefruit trees. When Dawson-Cook saw her daughter’s speed and focus, she knew agriculture was an interest worth nurturing.
So Paige and her mother began delivering fruit from Hoppes’ garden, along with fruit recipes typed up by Paige, to school staffers on a weekly basis. Quickly, demand for their fruit deliveries expanded to a local church that provides food to elderly and hungry community members.
“Once the local fruit trees were exhausted, Dalton-Cook began reaching out to new groups that could donate surplus produce, including backyard vegetable gardeners, the Escondido zero-waste group More than Apples… and local commercial growers like Yasukochi Farms in Oceanside [California], which donates several crates of vegetables to the cause each week,” wrote Kragen.
In July 2020, Dalton-Cook filed documents to make Paige’s Pantry a registered nonprofit organization. The organization received nonprofit status in January 2021.
Nowadays, Paige’s Pantry provides produce to 30 families. They hope to serve 100 families by early 2022.
It works like this: Paige and her mother pick fruit and amass produce donations every Thursday. Friday mornings, four young adult volunteers with autism ages 17 to 24, come to the Dalton-Cook home to help compile delivery orders. Then, the mother and daughter make deliveries to subscribers who don’t have transportation. On Saturdays, subscribers who drive come to the Dalton-Cook house and pick up their bags of produce curbside.
“It’s so new and growing so fast, I am taking this one week at a time,” Dalton-Cook told Kragen. “Paige and I are learning each day,” she said. “It’s definitely a learning curve, but so is every start-up.” Dalton-Cook hopes that someday, the venture will become Paige’s “full-time career.”
Photo courtesy of Paige’s Pantry, www.paigespantry.org