Community activist Shrey Pothini saw his hard work transformed into policy change at the Savage City Council meeting earlier this week.
The only bummer is that he still had to be in bed by 9 p.m.
Shrey is 8. For the past two years, he's held his birthday party for free in the community room at Savage City Hall. In lieu of presents, he asked guests to bring new towels for Avenues for Homeless Youth, a Minneapolis homeless shelter he first visited as a toddler with his mom, Seema, who sits on the board of directors.
Soon Shrey began to notice -- and despair of -- the inequities. "I went into the Avenue rooms and they were pretty much empty," he said. "I compared how much stuff I had with how much stuff they had. I had way more, for sure."
He asked his mom what they could do. Seema looked at the list of needs: Soap, towels, body wash. Shrey chose towels.
In 2009, family members and friends celebrated Shrey's community-room birthday with 44 towels. In 2010, they collected 118 towels. This year, hoping to reach 200, Shrey faced a disappointing roadblock. In January, the Savage City Council instituted a $75 user fee for all community room events, with the exception of nonprofit organizations. Birthday party? Pay up.
City administrator Barry Stock explained that the fee was necessary to cover damage to the carpets and walls of the four-year-old facility due to people bringing in food, coffee, pop, glue and paint.
"I didn't really get it," Shrey said of the new policy, "because I'm doing a nonprofit party. I'm not even getting any presents."
Shrey told his mom that he could bring in a police officer from the adjoining precinct to make sure nobody was getting any fun stuff. That made her laugh.
Seema, a school diversity consultant, emphasizes that the $75 is "quite minimal." For her son, this is a matter of principle. "Shrey wants to make sure that the opportunity is available to others."
The second-grader decided to take on City Hall.
On Oct. 23, he pulled out his wide-lined notebook and, in neat, straight printing, wrote a letter. "Dear Savage City Council," he began, with only a few misspellings.
"When I was 3, I went to a homeless shelter in Minneapolis called Avenuse for Homeles Youth and I saw that the people who lived there diden't have so many things that they needed. I've had my birthday party at the Savage City Hall community room for two years. We did it there because I could use the room for free and could invite so many kids and they would bring more towels.
"... It doesn't make sense to pay $75.00 because I could use that money to buy 25 towels. I really hope that you can help our community by changing the policy. Sincerely, Shrey G. Pothini, age 7."
Seema delivered her son's letter to City Hall and Shrey spoke before the council on Nov. 7. "Savage is one of the best cities in Minnesota," he said wisely, leaning into the microphone. "If you change the policy, then maybe other people will get inspired and maybe other cities and states." The council agreed to take up the matter the following week.
In his non-activist life, Shrey's favorite subject is science, "where we make observations." He takes karate lessons, loves the movie "How To Train Your Dragon" and just took up the viola.
"I didn't want a violin," Shrey said. "That's way too common."
His eighth birthday party was held for free on Nov. 12 at IGM Gymnastics in Burnsville, where he collected 84 bath towels and several packs of washcloths and body wash. In addition, the Family Vision Clinic in Savage, and Klein Bank branches in Savage, Burnsville, Lakeville and Shakopee, will collect towels and body wash for Avenues until Nov. 19.
On Nov. 14, the start of Youth Appreciation Week in Savage, "Review City Hall Meeting Room Policy" was the first order of business. Seema and Shrey sat in the back, while Shrey's "super-proud" dad, Venu, and little sister waited at the library.
Stock thanked Shrey for "beating us to the punch." Frankly, Stock said, the user fee has been a big pain in the neck to administer. Suddenly, everybody's claiming to be a nonprofit.
The council agreed to a new strategy for 2012: Everybody who wants to use the community room, be they for-profit or non-profit, will be charged a modest $25 for up to four hours. "We want to encourage use of the room," Stock said on Tuesday, "but we do have to find some way to cover maintenance. It's good for Shrey to realize that, sometimes, things aren't so simple. But the guy is so eloquent. Wow."
Seema thinks the change is "a nice compromise." Shrey? "I'm pretty mad about it," he said after leaving the chambers, "because they're going to get more money than they need."
He thinks it's unjust to charge nonprofits even a penny. But he'll give the policy a year. Then, good members of the Savage City Council, get ready.
"I'm not going to stop doing this," Shrey said. "I'm going to force them to change that policy."
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