Every other Friday a group of special needs students participate in the Food Pantry Care Program at St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach. They are in a transition program through the LA County Office of Education, learning job skills by bagging up groceries for HIV and AIDS patients.
"We learn how to survive in the real world," said Damian, a student in the program.
The training program has been led by special education teacher Tim Smith for 17 years. He says it gives his students a rare opportunity to train for their future while also giving back to the community.
"I don't think my students typically see themselves as contributing members of society and this is a situation where they can come and realize they can contribute and give back, so it does a lot for self-esteem and self-worth," Smith said.
Tammy Basile is a registered dietician who supervises the food pantry. She says it couldn’t operate without these dedicated volunteers.
"These volunteers have been the most dependable, hardest working individuals I've ever worked with," Basile said.
The food is free to patients like Dan Rafferty who has lived with HIV for 25 years.
"Most of us that have gone through full blown AIDS are on social security, disability and we can't afford food in this day and age. And if it wasn’t for Tammy and the food pantry I wouldn’t be able to survive," Rafferty said.
Despite their disabilities, the students fully understand that the work they do helps others.
"I feel this warm feeling and it makes me appreciate that I'm healthy and I have food in my house," said Gonzalez.
Unfortunately, this is the last year of the transition program for the special education students. It's being eliminated due to budget cuts. The non-profit food pantry is going to need volunteers and donations of food and a refrigerated truck. For more information on volunteering visit https://www.supportstmary.org.