For 12 years, Fay Finn helped teens at Burnsville High School find the perfect place to volunteer, at the same time giving back through her own work in the community.

In June, Finn retired from her full-time job as a youth service specialist at the high school, a Community Education position. She now spends her time running Brainpower in a Backpack, a hunger-relief program she brought to the district in 2009.

“She’s helped me a lot to get really involved in the community,” said Sangeetha Shreedaran, a senior at Burnsville High School. “She’s an extremely encouraging person and she does so much for students.” Finn helped Shreedaran set up times to volunteer at her former elementary school and suggested other places she might enjoy helping out. Since her sophomore year, Shreedaran has logged more than 400 volunteer hours.

Last month, Finn’s efforts were recognized when she received one of Burnsville’s “Community Builder” awards, honors given to citizens who “do their best to build a brighter future for Burnsville.”

Finn learned she had won — she didn’t know about the nomination — through a newspaper article. Upon finding out, “I was just blown off the earth,” she said.

“[Finn] is one of those people who exudes quiet confidence,” said Tom Umhoefer, the district’s Community Education director. “She’ll give you the shirt off her back.”

And when she sets her mind to something, “She’s going to make it happen,” he said.

When Finn started Brainpower in a Backpack, the idea was to “get our students involved in a meaningful project right in our own community,” Finn said.

The district has changed, with more students qualifying for free and reduced-price meals, she said. Because many go hungry over the weekend, every Friday they get a take-home bag filled with 10 nutritious food items.

The program now serves 300 students at 10 schools. Finn hopes to expand it to serve 10 percent of the district’s needy kids in the near future, and one day, 20 percent, or 500 kids, she said.

Finn created the program based on similar programs she had heard about. In addition to purchasing and packing food, there’s also the fundraising element, she said.

Brainpower in a Backpack’s biggest fundraiser is “Empty Bowls for Full Bellies.” Last year, the event raised $11,800.

The power of service

Each week, 10 to 12 students volunteer with Finn, packing food into bags to send home, along with personalized notes.

Some of her helpers are special education students at the high school, Umhoefer said, which was Finn’s idea. Having them shop for food items “is huge. It’s a life skill that they definitely need,” Umhoefer said.

At the high school, Finn connected students with volunteer opportunities they were interested in, telling them that community service not only helps others, but that it’s good for the volunteers’ mental health, too.

Burnsville High School students put in 10,000 hours each year volunteering, Umhoefer said.

Sometimes students earn academic credit for volunteering. Other times they are building a résumé for college, Finn said.

“My goal was always to have them learn something from their experience,” Finn said.

Finn, who has volunteered at her church, at a nature center and with Feed My Starving Children over the years, said that volunteering builds character and responsibility.

“In essence, volunteering helps you become the person you’re ultimately going to be,” she said.

It also helps expose students to a variety of problems and different kinds of people, Umhoefer said. “It just broadens their horizons immeasurably,” he said.

And Finn is especially good with young people, he added.

“Fay is one of those people that, for whatever reason, kids gravitate to her,” he said. “Her ability to reach them at their level, not as an adult and not as a kid but kind of in the middle ground … it was just a seamless effort for her.”