Students learn valuable life skills through H.E.A.R.T. internships at Houston Food Bank 

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HISD has several programs to help young adults with significant disabilities transition successfully from high school to a productive adult life. In honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month in October, we will be featuring three of these programs. This is the first in the series. Read the second in the series, about students thriving in an office environment, here.

Gracie, 19, is an outgoing Sharpstown International High School student. She gets up early, dresses in a purple or grey HISD polo shirt and khaki pants, and catches the school bus to the Houston Food Bank. She has a job to do.

Gracie is one of 17 HISD students with developmental disabilities working as interns at the Houston Food Bank through a partnership with H.E.A.R.T (Housing, Entrepreneurship, and Readiness Training). The students, ages 18-22, officially will graduate once their internships are complete.

Gracie is enthusiastic about everything she is learning, but she especially likes restocking the soda vending machines at the food bank. She also works in the building’s Texans Café, which serves visitors and volunteers. Gracie leads a tour of the cafe, pointing out large containers of sugar and sugar substitute she uses to restock the coffee area. “And we always wash our hands before we start working in the cafe,” she said.

Gracie and the other students are being trained to work in vending, concessions, and the warehouse at the Houston Food Bank’s state-of-the-art facility in East Houston.

“They learn how to operate six types of vending machines,” said Dr. Ross Castillo, a co-founder of H.E.A.R.T. “They also work at the Texans Café making coffee, cleaning tables, re-stocking, and assisting customers.”

The interns spend part of each week in a spacious Food Bank classroom with HISD Special Ed teacher Michelle Stantial. Recently, the students were practicing how to answer the phone and take messages. They also learn how to create a resume, be a responsible employee, and gain job skills such as product recognition, food labeling, counting money from vending machines, and other services related to their on-the-job training.

“The Houston Food Bank is a place where hope is nurtured through our many productive partnerships,” said Food Bank President Brian Greene.

Trevor, 18, attended North Forest High School before being accepting into the program. He is quick to point out his favorite drink and candy in the vending machines. And Dylan, 20, talks about helping his mother with cooking and laundry on the weekends. Although the students love working at the food bank, like most young adults, they look forward to the weekends, when they enjoy listening to music, playing with their siblings, and seeing friends.

Although H.E.A.R.T. is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, the HISD internship program is only in year two. It is growing, however, and as the Houston Food Bank expands with Keegan Kitchen early next year, some of the HISD student interns may get jobs working there.

The new hot kitchen will serve 20,000 nutritious meals daily in a 10,000-square-foot facility. Students who don’t get jobs at the Food Bank, however, will be well-equipped to find a meaningful job in the food service, vending, or warehouse industry.

“Our partnership with H.E.A.R.T. beautifully reflects our mission,” Greene said. “We use our resources to build opportunities for the young people enrolled in H.E.A.R.T. who seek a positive future.”