Downers Grove Transitions 99 students learn life lessons at West Suburban Community Pantry

  • Transitions student Colton helps stock shelves at West Suburban Community Pantry. Recently orphaned, Colton says alleviating others suffering helps him with his own.

    Transitions student Colton helps stock shelves at West Suburban Community Pantry. Recently orphaned, Colton says alleviating others suffering helps him with his own. Courtesy of West Suburban Community Pantry

Posted11/2/2022 7:15 PM

Jeri Smolek, special education teacher and program coordinator for the Transition 99 program, says when her students work at the West Suburban Community Pantry, they're thinking about people other than themselves while they affirm their own capabilities.

Downers Grove High School District 99's program is designed to provide special needs high school graduates with vocational skills and life skills while readying them for further education, employment and independent living within the community.


The Pantry offers hands on work experience to high functioning special needs students from several organizations, including Ray Graham Association, Community Access Naperville and Giant Steps.

"Since the easing of pandemic restrictions, groups have been eager to come back," said Pantry Volunteer Coordinator Colleen Loftus. "Whether they are working in the warehouse or the Pantry Store, students get job skills and the experience of helping provide food to the community. And the social interaction is great, for the kids, their helpers and our volunteers."

Every week a group of young men comes to the Pantry in Woodridge to help stock shelves and fill boxes for delivery. They completed traditional high school in December of last year.

In addition to the Transitions 99 program, many are currently employed and/or are taking classes at College of DuPage.

Colton is currently taking a College Success Skills class at COD, but not working, so this volunteer work gives him experience he hopes to take to the workplace.

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Making a difference is also benefitting his emotional growth.

"My mom died when I was 9 years old," he says. "I have been in poor emotional health since then. Working here helps my self-esteem, while I can help people who desperately need help so they can afford to feed their families. They're suffering. Helping them not suffer helps my suffering." The young man's father also died, during his senior year of high school.

Jack is taking an Interpersonal Communications class at COD. He says when he concentrates on the repetition of filling boxes at the Pantry, it makes his work at Fresh Thyme Market feel almost instinctive.

"It's good training and I like that I get to be on the other side, seeing how things work … and it's great to have the power to change people's lives."

As they sort the various canned goods and fill and straighten the shelves, Colton, Jack, Grant, Jonah and Tristan each fall into a role he is comfortable with.


Some assist or direct others at bit, some keep to themselves, concentrating on the task at hand. All seem happy to be at the Pantry and confident in their surroundings.

Smolek says the goal of the program to prepare each student to leave ready to be as independent as possible, so they can have the life they want and contribute to society in whatever way is right for each of them.

As for volunteering, Jack recommends it. "Even if you don't have a lot of time, give it a chance," he says. "It feels real good to help the people who might not have the success you have."

West Suburban Community Pantry provides food and resources to people facing hunger, unlocking access to nutritious meals, and strengthening hope for tomorrow. Rooted in the community for 30 years, the Pantry offers the On-site Pantry Store in Woodridge, the Virtual Food Pantry and optional Door Dash delivery at and senior home delivery program to households in need in DuPage County, Bolingbrook and Romeoville.

The Pantry also runs child nutrition programs in local school districts and connects families with financial assistance and support services.

For information on the Pantry services and shopping hours, visit

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