When 11-year-old Shrey Pothini and his mom were beginning to plan a community service day in Savage, they e-mailed officials from an East Coast city that recently held such an event to ask for advice.
What they got in response was not encouraging.
“[The e-mail] truly just said, ‘This type of project is too big for your son, so maybe you should find something else,’ ” said Seema Pothini, Shrey’s mother.
The feedback didn’t discourage Shrey, already an avid volunteer and founder of a successful service club. In fact, it underscored the general message he wants to send to other kids.
“What I really want students and small children to know is that you don’t have to be an adult or have lots of money to help make a positive difference in the world,” he said.
Shrey continued planning, enlisting the mayor, local businesses and nonprofits to help. This weekend, Savage will celebrate the inaugural Service Day Saturday, a citywide event featuring multiple ways to help others. There will be six different service projects at City Hall and a chance to donate various items, from grocery bags to food and books, to those in need.
Saturday is also Global Youth Service Day, celebrated worldwide.
“I thought, ‘Hey, why not have something focused on helping and volunteering? And then we could have a really huge impact and inspire others to volunteer all year long,’ ” he said.
Residents — and anyone else — can also host their own project on Saturday or anytime this week. It can be as simple as picking up litter.
“He’s very diplomatic. He set up an appointment, met me at my office and explained [the idea] to me,” said Janet Williams, mayor of Savage. “I just think it’s a great way to involve kids in this kind of participation.”
Another suburb with a citywide service day is Edina, and officials there were helpful during the planning process, Shrey said.
Shrey’s passion for community service started early. At age 3, he went with his mom to volunteer at a homeless shelter for youth in Minneapolis.
“He just really connected with the place,” Seema said.
On the way home, he asked her why the shelter didn’t have enough of certain items, and what he could do about it. For his fourth birthday, he decided to have a bath towel drive in lieu of receiving birthday presents.
He got 15 towels that year and has done the drive ever since. This year, he collected 465 towels for the shelter, he said.
His 6-year-old sister collects body wash for the needy on her birthday.
“People think, ‘Was this your mom’s idea?’” Seema said of Shrey’s efforts. “It’s not me at all. That’s what’s neat about it.”
When Shrey was a third-grader at Harriet Bishop Elementary in the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district, he had another idea: to create a service club so he and other students could help the community.
Soon, the club had more than 90 members, meeting every month to complete a project for a different nonprofit. Projects include sending school supplies to Guatemala, writing cards to military service members and organizing a hair donation project to create wigs for cancer patients.
Last fall, Shrey received a $25,000 grant from State Farm, which he used to expand his Service Club to nine other elementary schools in the district. His mom helped him write the grant application, because he’s “not a good typer,” he said.
Simple projects, big impact
The Service Club and its members will be at City Hall on Saturday to help coordinate projects there.
Most of the projects are simple — making fleece blankets for the humane society, repackaging rice for a food shelf — and designed to be family friendly. People can spend minutes or hours helping out, Shrey said.
One project, hosted by the Savage Area Women of Today, involves decorating a small cardboard “giving box” so families can collect change for the needy. They can decide together where the money will go and “make it more of a conversation,” said Stacy Pearson, founding member of the Savage Area Women of Today.
Pearson said her group heard about Shrey’s efforts and participating in the service day “just seemed like a really great fit.”
“It’s really neat to see somebody out there and having such a passion for service, since that’s part of our mission,” she said.
When finished volunteering, participants will receive an orange bracelet that gets them into Life Time Fitness free that day or into open play times at the Savage Sports Center in April. They should also report their volunteer hours at City Hall or online at ServiceDaySaturday.wix.com/Savage so they can be tallied.
Shrey, who also enjoys karate, basketball and learning about science and history, said he wants the event to become an annual tradition in his hometown.
“I’m just hoping for a really big turnout this year, and hopefully next year it will be even bigger,” he said.