Manna Pantry in Big Rapids provides training for students with special needs

BIG RAPIDS – Manna Pantry in Big Rapids is known for helping families facing food insecurity in and around Mecosta County, but food isn’t the only service they provide.

Principal Bonnie Clerk recently told the Pioneer that the pantry works with local students with special needs to help them learn social skills and job skills through volunteering.

“Volunteers are an essential part of any nonprofit, and Manna Pantry is no exception,” Clark said. “The pantry asked for help from several students with disabilities. Not only do these students provide the necessary services for the Pantry, but the Pantry provides these students with valuable “soft” job skills.

“Many young people do not have the opportunity to gain work experience, especially when they have a disability,” she added. “Volunteering is a wonderful way to gain this experience. They may already have the professional skills for a job, but it is the interpersonal and social skills needed to work effectively with others that are lacking.

Clark said the collaboration began when Lisa Nielsen, a high school teacher of students with moderate cognitive impairment, reached out. Through the school’s community instruction program, Nielsen began bringing one or two students to the pantry twice a week with a staff member to oversee the training.

Students learned to restock the shelves and helped repackage food, allowing regular volunteers to focus their attention on direct customer service. Unfortunately, the CBI program has been halted during shutdowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In August 2021, one of Manna Pantry’s regular volunteers began bringing one of his Michigan Rehabilitation Services clients to the pantry during his shift.

“Sean is a high school graduate with Aspergers who completed the Mecosta County Career Center’s two-year automotive program,” Clark said. “He had shadowing experience at work, which was too stimulating for him. He needed a smaller space.

While at the pantry, Sean was given tasks such as cleaning, vacuuming and repackaging pet food, which he was able to accomplish without difficulty, Clark said.

“It was his interpersonal skills, those ‘soft’ job skills, that he desperately lacked,” she said. “He spoke very loudly, and a lot. He talked over and over about video games, and I finally had to tell him that I really didn’t know what he was talking about. I should remind him to get back to work.

The team discussed what accommodations they thought would help Sean be more successful. Because he was upset about not completing a task, got up and talked instead of taking on extra tasks, and was easily distracted, he was given a to-do list, which was very specific .

Regular volunteers received information about Sean’s goals and how they could help him.

“He was able to go through all the procedures, until a change was made,” Clark said. “Sean couldn’t take the beating and often exploded and had to leave the work area to calm down. If he saw that one of the regular volunteers was not following a procedure, he corrected it. Efforts have been put in place to help improve Sean’s active listening skills so that he doesn’t interrupt others or get angry when told something different.

By volunteering at the food pantry, Sean learned and honed his job skills. When mistakes were made, he received feedback to improve without risking being let go.

“Now Sean is an important part of the Manna Pantry volunteer team,” Clark said. “He has improved so much that he is now a regular volunteer. Sean is a shopper, pulling items from the shelves to fill customer orders. He always uses a to-do list in case of downtime, and he can give appropriate feedback and even make great suggestions.


Another achievement, pantry volunteer Zach, is credited to Nielsen, who saw potential in his student, Clark said.

“I reached out to Lisa because I needed help with behind-the-scenes tasks that I knew some of her students could do,” Clark said.

“So Zach started coming to the pantry twice a week in the afternoon. But Zach didn’t just come to do pantry duties, he also had communication skills on which to work.

Clark explained that Zach was calm and well mannered, and needed to speak louder and more clearly when communicating with others. His first task, upon arriving at the pantry, is to call MOTA to make sure his mother had arranged for him to come home.

“We started practicing what to say and speaking louder on the phone,” Clark said. “At first we had to encourage him, but now he does it on his own. I thank the MOTA staff for their patience with Zach on these calls. It’s all about working together. »

Zach received training in tasks such as affixing labels to bags used to repackage food, which he was able to master quickly, she said. Soon he started helping with food repackaging after labeling the bags, following all the preparation required.

“We are required to label repackaged foods, and it takes a long time,” she said. “During a shift serving our customers, if the regular volunteers have time to repackage, having the bags already labeled makes the job much faster.

“Over time, Zach would repack the items himself. I’m amazed at how well he understood repacking. He’s gotten to the point now where all we have to do is give him a list or do one request and he does it all.”

Along with getting things done, Zach’s communication skills have also improved a lot, Clark said. After explaining to the volunteers what Zach’s goals were, they encouraged him to speak louder and more clearly.

“Zach started engaging the volunteers in conversation, instead of waiting to be noticed,” Clarks said. “He also started telling me things about his day without my asking. I’m so impressed with Zach’s progress.

Clark said that upon hearing that Zach would be coming to the pantry all summer, she decided to work with him to become a buyer, which is one of the regular volunteer jobs.

“He started off slow, having to read the article and then figure out how many the family should get, but the more he shops, the faster he gets,” she said.

Zach’s mother, Amy, who actively supports his volunteer work at the pantry, said Zach’s volunteer work at the pantry has been great.

“He loves doing the job, and he’s made so much progress with his speech and his ability to deal with people,” she said.

Students at the Mecosta Osceola Middle School District Transition Center also served as part of the pantry volunteer service. Three students and a staff member come to the pantry once a week to pack pet food, Clark said.

Every student who comes finds the task he likes and is good for. They learn where to find animal equipment and food, how to set up their workplace and how to clean up. Through this, they also learned how to communicate with volunteers, ask appropriate questions and work effectively.

“I love it when another paraprofessional comes along with the MOISD students and they show the para how they package pet food,” Clark said. “The pride it brings them is wonderful.

“We rely on these students to package pet food, which saves regular volunteers time from serving customers,” she continued. “We look forward to continuing this partnership with the MOISD Transition Center in the new school year.”

Clark attributes the success of all students with disabilities to the teamwork of everyone involved. Her background in special education allowed her to find ways to meet the needs of the student, she said, and educating regular volunteers on how to help students was an important factor.

Knowing Zach was working on communication skills, they were able to encourage him to ask questions, she said. And knowing that Sean needed structure and consistency to reduce confusion allowed them to work with him more effectively.

The collaboration between Manna Pantry and students with disabilities continues to grow. Regular volunteers are role models in a work environment for students and provide them with the interpersonal skills they need.

“At first some of the volunteers were hesitant, but once they started working with these students, they discovered how nice the students are and what valuable services they provide,” Clark said.

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