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Oceanside Organization Helps Autistic Young Adults Gain Skills While Feeding The Hungry

An undated photo of Paige Cook, left, and her mother, Malinda Dalton-Cook, ri...

Credit: Malinda Dalton-Cook

Above: An undated photo of Paige Cook, left, and her mother, Malinda Dalton-Cook, right. They are the owners of Paige's Pantry, a nonprofit organization empowering autistic young adults and feeding the hungry.

Paige’s Pantry is an Oceanside nonprofit organization with a dual mission.

The organization donates fresh fruits and vegetables to people with food insecurity.

But before the produce is handed off to people in need, the fruits and vegetables are bagged by volunteers on the autism spectrum.

Listen to this story by Tania Thorne.

Paige Cook, 19, and her mother, Malinda Dalton-Cook, started Paige’s Pantry when COVID-19 shut down Paige’s special needs school. Paige has autism, epilepsy and apraxia.

“Paige was not having anything to do with online learning," Dalton-Cook said. "She goes to a special school and they didn’t have any kind of program. They didn’t know what they were going to do with the kids, with the students."

With no options to keep Paige busy during quarantine, Dalton-Cook decided to use her daughter's interest in agriculture to keep Paige engaged during the pandemic.

At first, Cook's teacher invited her to her house to pick her fruit trees.

“We harvested lemons and limes and grapefruits," Dalton-Cook said. "She loved it. Paige loved it, and she was just hustling out there.”

Photo credit: Malinda Dalton-Cook

An undated photo of Paige Cook cutting down fruit.

Cook enjoyed it so much that friends and neighbors began inviting her to their houses.

Cook and her mom were left with crates of fresh fruits and vegetables that they began bagging and delivering to a local church. The produce was to be donated to people dealing with food insecurity.

“Then we became partners with a lot of farms in San Diego that have some extra (produce) that they could drop off at our house," Dalton-Cook said.

Local farms donate produce for Paige and her volunteers to bag.

Every Friday, volunteers with and without special needs meet at Cook's house to bag the produce.

Denise Padilla. 21. is one of the volunteers.

“I volunteer at Paige’s Pantry and I put all the fruits and vegetables in the bag,” Padilla said.

Photo by Tania Thorne

Rosa Padilla, left, and her daughter, Denise Padilla, right, stand outside of Paige's Pantry in Oceanside where Denise is a volunteer, June 25, 2021.

Rosa Padilla, Denise’s mom, drives her to Oceanside from Lemon Grove every week to volunteer at Paige’s Pantry.

“For Denise, especially, now that she's out of the school system, things for her to do are kind of hard to find," Rosa Padilla said. "And that's a very typical situation for people with developmental disabilities that are either over 22 or they exited out of the school system."

Rosa said Denise looks forward to Fridays because she enjoys bagging the produce and it’s for a good cause.

Each bag gets a personalized note from the volunteer who bagged it and sometimes delivered it as well.

Dalton-Cook said Paige’s Pantry had been a success for parents with children who have special needs because there are limited activities for young adults like Paige and Denise.

“There's not a lot of programs for teens and adults on the autism spectrum," she said. "We wanted to build something so that she could have something to do and something to thrive at."

Paige’s Pantry also helps its volunteers gain new skills.

“She (Paige) has learned communication goals. She has learned administration goals," Dalton-Cook said. "She types out her letters every week, so there’s all different parts."

Another lesson in Paige's Pantry is zero waste. All of the leftover produce gets donated to local animal farms.

Paige’s Pantry recently became a nonprofit organization. Dalton-Cook hopes they can expand the organization into a warehouse.

She hopes to get more produce, donations, and volunteers that could eventually turn into paid employees.

In the meantime, Dalton-Cook invites any new volunteers to her home to participate in Paige’s Pantry.

“We want to bring in anybody. Any level of autism could come in," she said. "We will make accommodations for you."

Reported by Tania Thorne

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Photo of Tania Thorne

Tania Thorne
North County Reporter

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