New Experiences, New Pantry Program at Life Skills Center

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Positive changes have come to the district’s long-running K-12 life skills program, with a successful relocation to enhance the acquisition of both job skills and life skills, and an expansion to the community with a food pantry affiliated with Island Harvest.

The Life Skills Center moved this year from the Washington School to the Lincoln building, making full use of the new space’s multiple rooms to create four different learning experiences: a sunny studio apartment, including a kitchen and living room; a “retail store,” donated by Dressbarn, where the students learn shopping, money and budgeting skills; the former Lincoln main office, converted into a functional office space for the life skills students; and the food pantry, where the students can learn skills like sorting inventory in a grocery-type setting.
The district currently has 10 students enrolled in the life skills program, which runs from kindergarten through 12th grade.

“The program provides many functional opportunities for our students to develop the skills that they will need in their everyday lives,” said special education teacher Maria Devitt.

The 10 currently enrolled life skills students are at the Lincoln Life Skills Center on Monday and Wednesday afternoons, rotating through the apartment, food pantry, retail center and office. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they participate in vocational training at an increasing number of off-site job placements such as Walmart, Party City, Shop Rite and FragranceNet.com. On Friday afternoons, the life skills program features community-based instruction; according to Devitt, this involves educational instruction in naturally occurring community environments such as soup kitchen volunteering, which provides students with real-life experiences.

“We are trying to give our kids a wide range of experiences to transition from a Deer Park High School student to a contributing member of our community,” said Kimberly Skillen, the district administrator for secondary curriculum and instruction. She added that as the life skills program has grown, it is fortunate that it has been so strongly supported by both the Board of Education and the Deer Park community.

The district’s new food pantry program, run as part of the Life Skills Center, is a certified Island Harvest pantry, which means resulting support from that organization. The pantry will involve the students’ participation, providing a unique opportunity to have Deer Park students helping Deer Park families. It will enhance job skills for the students in a real-life application of what they are learning while responding to growing food insecurity in Deer Park.

The idea for the pantry stemmed from last summer, when special education and ENL summer school students were offered free lunch through Island Harvest. The life skills students enjoyed organizing the lunch program and saw firsthand the need in the community.

The pantry is open to any local family in need who requests food. “We can do it in a respectful way,” said Skillen, who noted that a discreet pickup procedure will be put in place. Social workers will input requests in a Google form, and the life skills students will create the boxes of food, based on social worker entries. Monthly food drives will be held to replenish the pantry, and members of the high school’s student council will work in the pantry as mentors to the life skills students.