For the sixth consecutive year, special needs students at Toll Gate High School have helped stuff Thanksgiving care packages through the Helping Hands Ministry program at St. Peter Church, which were distributed to families in need on Tuesday evening.
A total of 50 baskets – complete with all the trimmings for a Thanksgiving dinner – were assembled by the students and delivered by a dozen or so other volunteers connected to the church. In lieu of physical turkeys, which add quite a bit of weight, bulk and complication to making a care package, $20 gift cards to Stop & Shop are included instead.
“It has been wonderful because it's teaching the students about giving and community volunteering and helping those who are less fortunate,” said Christina DiLustro-Stamp, one of the special education teachers at Toll Gate who oversees the students helping make the baskets. “It gives them a sense of accomplishment, a sense of independence and a sense of being able to help others.”
The program started after one of the parishioners of St. Peter thought to include students from her grandson’s special needs class in order to involve them in community service.
“People like to get involved so we try to help out however we can,” said Ernie Piedra, one of the Helping Hands Ministry organizers. “We’ve carried on the tradition.”
“We're teaching our students in our programs job skills, skills they'll need to know when they leave their school career and go out into an adult program or whatever they're going to be doing,” DiLustro-Stamp said of the values of the program.
Once the class receives a list from the parish about what items are needed, they’ll give either copies of the list to the students and let them go into the food pantry and retrieve the items. Some of the students can read, so they get written lists. Others utilize picture lists to find the right items and place them in the bags.
“No matter what their ability level, they're reading a list – pictures or words – and they're marking it off themselves,” DiLustro-Stamp said. “It’s something they're doing for themselves and it's such a great thing for them to be able to do. I think some of the time the students get sick of us helping them do everything. They love the independence.”