March 13, 2020, as the world entered the beginning stages of quarantines and shutdowns, my daughter’s school closed. All we knew is what we didn’t know. "Distance learning" was a new phrase that I, as a parent of a daughter with special needs, had no idea the real meaning of or what its impact would be on our family. There was no guidebook on how we or our children would navigate this new phase of social isolation, remote and reduced learning options, and a community filled with uncertainty and fear.
Paige's special needs school, which had been amazing and to where she loved going in-person, was suddenly no longer something she and I could depend on weekly. Despite how great her school was, Paige had academic goals on her IEP (individualized education plan) that were not really conducive to learning or doing through virtual meetings. Paige also had numerous community goals and life skills goals because she thrives in the community, but community learning came to a quick halt as well.
I was in a panic because she was so used to the routine of going to school each day. Plus, with everything now closed, it was now up to me to come up with a million new ways to educate and entertain Paige. She had just turned 18 on March 16 and was now an adult. What was I going to do? What was Paige going to do?
Fast forward to a couple weeks later and a life-changing virtual meeting with her teacher. We went over some of Paige’s school goals. One in particular stood out -- her agricultural goal, which consisted of planting, watering and harvesting produce from the school garden. Her teacher had a great idea. She told me she had orange, lemon, grapefruit trees in her backyard and suggested we go over and pick the citrus.
We both pondered what to do with the citrus. I asked if we could pick it and then give it away. It was that point that the idea for Paige's Pantry became a seedling. Paige's teacher's solution was that we pick the citrus, email the staff at school to get the addresses of those who would like the citrus, and then Paige and I could deliver the citrus to them during the Covid-19 shutdown.
So with masks on, a plastic tub that I found in my garage, gloves and garden shears, Paige and I met Paige’s teacher and started picking the fruit. Holy smokes! I knew Paige loved a task, but was soon blown away with her hustle. She filled several tubs.
We got the address of school staff and planned our route. We had 10 deliveries that first week. Each bag had an abundance of citrus. Paige typed a note to add to the bag, along with recipes we found online. Now, she was practicing her type goal!
We then continued to pick fruit each week, adding another school staff home that had avocados. We also expanded our clientele to a school staff member's church that provides meals for families and elderly residents in need. After several weeks those trees were running low and I needed something more. Paige’s teacher suggested an online local home growers group.
After researching her suggestion, I found the main group for San Diego. I shared Paige’s story. The outpouring of kindness from our San Diego community was unbelievable. We set up some places to pick produce and one woman who runs a non-profit organization to eliminate food waste, reached out to me. We are now a part of their family and receive produce each week to share with families in need. But, our story does not stop there. I then contacted farmers in San Diego and shared Paige’s story. These farmers not only said yes to us, they delivered to our home. We had so much produce that I asked my autism family friends if they would like to support Paige’s project.
To handle all the orders, I started a google order form. We then bought bags, wrote our letter and included recipes to attach to bags each week. Each Friday, I made deliveries around San Diego logging over 1000 miles and 7+ hours in driving.
Paige was so happy. She smiled. I smiled. So long story short, the Covid-19 shutdown helped us discover a possible way for this young woman to have sustainable, thriving business doing something she loves, that she is great at doing, and which helps others!
In January 2021, we were approved as a nonprofit. This will now be a reliable part of Paige’s future and also employ others on the autism spectrum, making Paige’s Pantry an. inclusive work space for all at any level. It’s so new and growing so fast, I am taking this one week at a time. Paige and I are learning each day. It’s definitely a learning curve, but so is every start up.
Today, we have two volunteers that come over to help each Friday and Saturday. They help sort, bag and deliver fresh produce. Over the past several months we have been extremely grateful for produce donations from:
Yasukochi Family Farms and More than Apples donate to Paige’s Pantry each week. As of now we are doing 30-40 produce bags each week (all free to customers!) including teachers/staff, Autism parents, and 2 churches. We are not only helping our kids on the spectrum reach for more, we are eliminating food waste, helping our community with food insecurities, plus bringing these fresh foods into our homes and teaching our kids on the spectrum the value of living healthy and how easy it can be to make better choices. We have many goals for Paige’s Pantry.
Good things are growing! We are just getting started!