(All photos by Nancy Stone for Nourishing Hope)
Almost every week, students from Northside Learning Center High School arrive eager to volunteer at Nourishing Hope’s headquarters.
All of the students have what could be generally described as intellectual disabilities or impaired functional abilities. Some communicate verbally; others do not. But they share a strong connection with one another and a deep satisfaction in helping others in need.
They show up with joy, ready to get to work. And each passing week brings them closer to high school graduation and increased independence.
“My mom and grandma always taught me that it’s a good thing to help other people who need help and to always be a good person,” said Monique Whitehead, 22, one of Northside Learning Center’s graduating class of 2023.
Volunteering is good medicine — it lifts the spirits of the person donating their time and effort, and, of course, it helps those receiving the services provided.
For Northside Learning Center students, the volunteer work also prepares them for life after high school by teaching them vocational skills needed for additional independence. The school provides a robust mix of academic education and real-life experiences to prepare them for life after graduation — a prospect that is both exciting and a bit scary for the students.
“I’ve been in school for so long, it will feel weird to not be in school,” Whitehead said. “I’ll miss my friends a lot.”
Under federal law, students with special needs can receive special education services through age 21. In Illinois, students like Monique, who turned 22 in April, can finish their final school year regardless of when their birthday lands during the year.
“We want to try to build toward as much independence as our students can get,” said Amy Yaklich, teacher at Northside Learning Center. “And it varies from student to student, the amount of independence that they will ultimately achieve.”
The older students at Northside Center, referred to as “team seven,” participate in community engagement activities nearly every day throughout the week. They volunteer at other nonprofits, including the Anti-Cruelty Society and One Tail at a Time. They also do work projects for area restaurants and the Chicago Park District.
Volunteering at Nourishing Hope is one of their favorite days of the week, Yaklich said.
“We talk about the service aspect of it, the fact that it’s actually helping people in need,” Yaklich said. “Also, I think they like that it’s very structured for us.”
They have their routine down: The students show up, check in, stash their belongings in a locker, use the restrooms and wash hands. And then they get to work in the warehouse, where food is gleaned and packed for distribution.
On a recent Wednesday, that meant packing dairy bags filled with eggs, cheese and kefir, which is a yogurt-like drink made by Lifeway Foods. The bags would later be distributed to people turning to Nourishing Hope’s two food pantries, El Mercadito and Sheridan Market, and to people receiving food through our home delivery program on the South and West Sides.
Typically, they pack about 150 dairy bags per shift, said Austin Bloomberg, warehouse operations supervisor for Nourishing Hope.
“They’ve gotten really good at these jobs,” Bloomberg said. “It’s been awesome. They bring peace to our work week for sure.”
Regular volunteer Cheryl Cott, who often works with the Northside Learning Center group, marveled at their determination to get the job done.
“No matter their ability level, they all want to do the best they can,” Cott said. “It’s an opportunity for them to say, ‘Yes, I know I could do this.’”
Doing structured and repetitive tasks like preparing the dairy bags helps prepare the students for jobs after graduation, Yaklich said. In the meanwhile, they’re enjoying each other’s company in their final months together at Northside Learning Center. Besides the graduation itself, there was a prom and a boat tour on Lake Michigan to look forward to.
“I never come away from these kids, no matter how challenging a day is, without having smiled a ton,” Yaklich said. “The world has a lot of crazy things going on and sometimes it can be depressing. But you come here and they always put a smile on your face.”
With graduation will come a range of big life changes. Some will continue to live at home, Yaklich said, while others will live in assisted living facilities or on their own. Some will work volunteer jobs; others will find paid employment. The school’s social workers and administrators will help them with the transition.
As she packed the dairy bags, Whitehead said she loves dogs and hopes to work with animals after graduation. Nearby, her classmate Daisy Maya said she wants to bake cookies for Starbucks.
Asked what she wants to do after graduation, Lanaudia Holder, 22, paused for a long moment before responding.
“Party?” she said.
Everyone nearby burst into laughter.
After the volunteer project, they posed for photos outside by the Nourishing Hope mural. Prompted by the photographer, they grinned, raised their fists in the air and shouted the exciting events yet to come.
They squinted and smiled in the sunshine as they prepared to leave for the day.