SAN DIEGO — When it came time to pick lemons and oranges in a backyard grove on a recent Tuesday, Paige Cook was all business.

The Oceanside teenager, who is on the autism spectrum, quickly pulled on her work gloves and headed straight for the trees. Paige didn’t dawdle or get distracted. She worked at a breakneck pace, clipping off dozens of citrus fruits and dropping them into a plastic crate. Within 20 minutes, the crate was full.

Gardening and picking fruit is one of Paige’s favorite hobbies. It’s also the inspiration for Paige’s Pantry, a new nonprofit started by her mom, Malinda Dalton-Cook. The business aims to distribute produce to the food insecure in North County while providing life, social and job skills to young adults like Paige with developmental disabilities.

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Paige, 19, is one of 20 students, ages 12 to 22, at TERI Inc.’s The Country School in San Marcos. She is mostly nonverbal and her curriculum at the school is focused on social and vocational training rather than academics. For each of the past seven years at the Country School, Paige has worked to achieve a series of learning and life-skills goals, including in agriculture. Her teacher, Meghan Hoppes, said that whenever Paige worked in the raised-bed gardens at a TERI group home in Vista, she was always extremely focused.

“Paige is really industrious,” Hoppes said. “She likes to work, she works hard and when she completes a task, she moves on to the next one. She’s a take-charge sort of person.”

Dalton-Cook said things were going well for her daughter until the pandemic arrived last year, shutting down the school campus and Paige’s access to the gardening work she loved and the socialization she craved. So in April 2020, Hoppes invited Paige and her mom over to her house in Escondido to pick as much as they liked from the orange, lemon and grapefruit trees in her backyard.

“So with masks on, a plastic tub that I found in my garage, gloves and garden shears we met Paige’s teacher and started picking the fruit. Holy smokes … I knew Paige loved a task but was blown away with her hustle,” Dalton-Cook said.

Paige typed up a letter with ideas and recipes for the citrus fruit and mom and daughter delivered the fruit to the porches of 10 staff members from the Country School. Week after week, mom and daughter picked fruit and delivered it to an expanding number of recipients, including a church that provides meals to the hungry and elderly.

Once the local fruit trees were exhausted, Dalton-Cook began reaching out to new groups that could donate surplus produce, including backyard vegetable gardeners, the Escondido zero-waste group More than Apples, which collects and distributes surplus food, and local commercial growers like Yasukochi Farms in Oceanside, which donates several crates of vegetables to the cause each week.

Last July, Dalton-Cook filed the paperwork to turn their weekly hobby into a business, Paige’s Pantry, and in January the organization earned nonprofit status. The program now serves about 30 families. That number will soon grow to 40 and the goal is to reach 100 families by year end, Dalton-Cook said.

Every Thursday afternoon, Dalton-Cook and Paige go out to pick fruit or collect produce donations and bring them home. On Friday mornings, four other volunteers on the autism spectrum come over to the house to help sort and bag the items. On Friday nights, mom and daughter do drop-offs for program recipients who can’t drive. And on Saturday mornings, Dalton-Cook hosts a drive-through pickup service in front of her home for the rest of the families.

Besides keeping Paige engaged and feeding the needy, Paige’s Pantry is also providing job skills to the volunteers with autism, ages 17 to 24. They all have different abilities, Dalton-Cook said, but everyone contributes.

“Part of the plan is to help them develop job skills,” she said. “Even if they can only open a bag and hold it open while someone else puts stuff inside, that’s great. Even if they can only move produce from point A to point B, that’s great. We can work with everyone.”

Dalton-Cook, who self-funded the launch of Paige’s Pantry, said she hopes the fledgling business can become her daughter’s full-time career.

“It’s so new and growing so fast, I am taking this one week at a time. Paige and I are learning each day,” she said. “It’s definitely a learning curve, but so is every start-up.”

© 2021 The San Diego Union-Tribune
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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