Students Gain Valuable Skills at FBSJ through the Structured Learning Work Experience Program
As the school year comes to a close, so does another successful year of the Food Bank of South Jersey’s participation in the Structured Learning Work Experience program.
During the 2022-2023 school year, FBSJ hosted special-needs students and their job coaches from Lenape Regional High School, Eastside High School, the Y.A.L.E. School, and Gloucester High School participated. Each week, the students have worked inspecting, categorizing, and boxing up food for distribution to member agencies and special outreach programs.
“This has also been an incredible opportunity for the Food Bank of South Jersey as we strengthened our connections within our communities,” said Gerald Tieyah, Senior Manager of Volunteer and Community Engagement, who administers the program. “We’re very pleased with the growth of this program from where it started,”
The Structured Learning program was instituted in 2016, when Woodrow Wilson School in Camden began sending students to the Food Bank of South Jersey to learn and develop practical workplace skills. Initially, these students volunteered roughly once a month, learning how to sort and pack food.
Though the schools and students change over time, the program remains steadfast, allowing students to gain valuable experience in a work environment, learning how to navigate a job site, and to work with other students and staff.
“For six years, we have collaborated with the Food Bank of South Jersey to bring our Structured Learning Program to their facilities,” Rachel Clancy, SLE Coordinator for the Camden County Educational Services Commission, said. “The program has been so valuable to the students involved. The students gain exposure to a variety of careers in the warehouse industry. They participate in hands-on training, develop skills that will lead to competitive employment, and have become part of a team, working side by side with the Food Bank employees. We feel very fortunate to have the Food Bank as our partner in this program.”
The program was formalized in connection with the Camden County Educational Services Commission in 2017, designating that the students would attend weekly shifts at FBSJ, learning how to maintain their work area; sort, pack, and create boxes of food; as well as soft skills like working with other teams and volunteers, and preparing for daily jobs.
“Early on, the students were getting to know one another, as well as how to work with different types of other groups. And, at the onset, it wasn’t just the students that would come in; it would also be a corporate team or another community team,” explained Tieyah. “So, being able to create an environment where they’re learning how to interact with other community members, other people outside of their school group – that was always something that was fun.”
In 2019, the program incorporated additional students from Brimm Medical Arts High School and Y.A.L.E. Academy. After the hiatus in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Structured Learning Work Experience program started again in the fall of 2021 with students from Brimm Medical Arts HS, Woodrow Wilson HS, and then our newest partner, Lenape Regional High School District, in 2022.
“They love coming here,” commented Pete Barton, Sorting Room Coordinator, who supervises the program. “Just recently, there were a few new students who remarked, ‘I’m glad I’m here,’ and ‘Oh, this is really fun.’”
As Clancy referenced, in addition to active tasks, members of the Food Bank staff have hosted several activities and events with the students that have allowed them to gain practical experience that they can serve them beyond the classroom or sorting room.
“One of the teachers told us that a student was going to be looking for a job,” said Tieyah. “I said, ‘Have they ever gone to any kind of job fair or anything like that sort of thing?’ When they said no, I asked, ‘Well, what if we put together one? What if we sat down with them and kind of walked them through what they might see at a job interview?’ And the teachers liked it.
Over the school year, the Structured Learning students worked hard at their tasks, bonding with their fellow students, the volunteer team, and their supervisors to fulfill not only the mission of the Food Bank, but also fuel their own growth. The students have expanded their knowledge, their skills, and their confidence.
“At the start of the program, we had students from Woodrow Wilson come in, and we introduced ourselves and introduced who’d they be working with. One of the kids was really shy and nervous. He was sitting in the front, kind of looking down at the ground. Wouldn’t look up at everybody. But over the course of that first year, with them being here every week, he just blossomed,” Tieyah said. “He took on kind of a foreman role, telling everybody where they need to be, even other students. For that first group to expand their experience and be able to go through that kind of transformation, that was just wonderful. You’re actually changing someone’s perspective and how they are looking at the world around them.”