Kids and adults in Savage volunteered their time this weekend to pack food, donate blood, adopt animals and more, as the community held its fourth annual Service Day Saturday at the City Hall campus.
The event began in 2015, when a few hundred people showed up to take part in projects that included packing rice for local food shelves and decorating brown delivery bags for Meals on Wheels. Since then it has grown to include more volunteers, projects and participating businesses, from Hy-Vee to Shoe Away Hunger and Life Time fitness.
Last year the Red Cross held a blood drive in the council chambers, and this year a bloodmobile was to be made available so more people could donate. Participants were to be given the chance to register to vote, and volunteers were to receive a commemorative wristband reading “I made a difference in Savage” and entitling them to discounts at local businesses.
Service Day was the brainchild of Shrey Pothini, 14, one of two young Minnesotans who will be traveling to Washington, D.C., next weekend to receive the Prudential Spirit of Community Award. The other state honoree is 18-year-old Ryan Guggenheim of St. Paul, who helped provide dental care to the poor in Guatemala as a youth ambassador for the Open Wide Foundation.
The Prudential Award, given annually to two outstanding youth volunteers in every state and the District of Columbia, comes with a $1,000 prize and an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington.
Shrey was only 10 in 2015 when he asked Mayor Janet Williams about holding a day in Savage dedicated to volunteering.
“He was shorter than me when this started, and now he towers over me,” Williams said.
“I wanted to help my peers find their passion so they can also make a difference,” said Shrey, referring to the passion for volunteering that began for him when he was 3 years old and visited Avenues for Homeless Youth in Minneapolis.
Instead of gifts for his 4th birthday, he asked that people bring a towel that could be donated to the Avenues shelter. He has continued that tradition since and has donated thousands of towels to the shelter.
“We have not had to buy towels for years,” said Katherine Meerse, executive director for Avenues for Homeless Youth. “It allows us to give each youth two towels.”
In the third grade, Shrey created a service club at Harriet Bishop Elementary School in Savage. The group initially consisted of 60 students and helped more than 10,000 people, he said, in its first year.
But to Shrey, that wasn’t enough. That’s when he approached Williams to get Service Day Saturday started.
Shrey has continued to play an integral role in organizing Service Day Saturday. He leads the planning meetings, dispatches e-mails and calls nonprofits and businesses to get them involved.
He does all this on top of being an eighth-grader at Eagle Ridge Middle School in Savage.
“School work comes first,” Shrey said. “But I send out e-mails any free time I have.”
In Washington for the Prudential Award ceremony next weekend, Shrey will have a chance to become one of 10 national winners who receive $5,000 and an additional $5,000 toward the organization of his choice. But he said he doesn’t do volunteer work for the recognition.
“I want to keep inspiring younger kids,” Shrey said. “I know getting that exposure at a young age can really change their lives. It did for me.”
Jeyca Maldonado-Medina is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.