Student volunteers gain valuable workplace skills

By Published On: February 7th, 2023

South Salem High School Developmental Learning Center students Abe, left, and Kellyn, right, bag cucumbers with help from student intern Kate, center.

At Marion Polk Food Share’s Volunteer Action Center, a class of special-needs students are developing skills that will help them successfully transition to life after high school.

Two mornings each week, the group of about 15 teenage volunteers gather to pack bulk food into family-size portions for delivery to partner pantries throughout the community.

The students are all part of South Salem High School’s Developmental Learning Center (DLC), a special education program for youth with intellectual and learning disabilities. According to their instructor, Brennan, volunteering at the Food Share helps the teenagers acquire valuable functional and vocational skills that will help them be successful in jobs after they graduate.

“Employment is a goal for every one of these students, so this is a great atmosphere for them to gain those skills,” Brennan says. “It presents the opportunity to work in a real-world environment and also give back to the community, which is pretty amazing.”

The aim of the DLC program is to prepare students for adult life, and the Volunteer Action Center is an ideal atmosphere for them to develop skills necessary for entering the working world. While some high school special education programs create simulated work environments to teach such skills, engaging in hands-on learning in a functioning warehouse means DLC students are getting a great soft entry into a real work experience.

Volunteering at the Food Share provides students the chance to engage in repetitive work that helps them learn a routine and become successful with it. They can quickly become independent with the task at hand, are able to set achievable goals, and are rewarded with a sense of accomplishment when they achieve those goals.

Abe, left, jokes with student intern Kate, right, during while working in the Volunteer Action Center.

“You’ll watch them in action and see the way they move around with confidence, completing the task and getting the job done; they take a lot of pride in that and it’s really fun to watch,” Brennan says.

During a recent volunteer shift, Abe — a DLC student and coffee lover who aspires to someday work in a coffee shop — works with his class packing bags of cucumbers. He takes the lead in retrieving empty boxes for the bags, sealing the boxes when they’re full, and stacking them on a nearby pallet.

Abe’s bright smile and enthusiasm for the work are contagious says Kate, a South Salem High School senior who serves as a DLC student intern.

“Abe is always positive, and he really inspires them,” Kate says. “I think he’s part of the reason why they all love it here; they all feed off each other’s energy.”

Working collaboratively with classmates like Kate from the general student population, as well as Food Share staff and fellow volunteers, is another positive for the DLC class. Students benefit from working alongside people without disabilities because that reflects the experience they’ll have once they enter the workforce.

The students thrive on routine, and the twice-weekly routine of volunteering at the Food Share is key to helping them become comfortable in a work environment, Brennan says. That’s why, since 2016, he’s made it an integral part of the class in which his students spend the duration of their high school years.

“I think this is one of the best things we do as a class. It’s hugely beneficial,” he says. “And the fact that we’re able to give back to the community while building all the skills that we’re building here is just an awesome thing to be involved with.”

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