Young but Powerful: The Story of Service Day Saturday
- Building Community
- Pathways & Partnerships
Sometimes all it takes is a kid with an idea and a supportive community.
Most four year olds don’t decline gifts at their birthday party in exchange for donations for teens without homes. Most third graders don’t start a club at their school solely dedicated to serving their community. Most fifth graders don’t call their mayor to ask for support on service initiatives and city resources for a full-blown service event. Most high school seniors don’t look back on their 14 years of service and wonder if they’ve done enough. It’s safe to say that most students are not Shrey Pothini.
No single person embodies the culture of community service in District 191 quite like Shrey. Growing up in Savage, Shrey was surrounded by a family who showed him different aspects of the world, teachers who encouraged him, and a community who rallied behind his efforts. It started when he was three years old and his mother Seema took him to a local teen homeless shelter where she served on the board.
“I would take Shrey with me and the youth there loved him,” said Seema. “They would play basketball with him and give him a great sense of belonging and inclusion, even as a little kid. He got to see a different side of the world than most kids his age.”
After seeing where the teens experiencing homelessness stayed and their small backpacks of belongings, young Shrey hatched a plan to help that involved giving them some of his dinosaur toys (he was really into dinosaurs at the time). His mother moved him away from toys and instead went through the list of requested donation items with him. One item in particular jumped out as what he would focus his efforts on, bath towels.
“He picked towels because that was something they needed and can be personalized with different colors and styles,” said Seema. “He had seen whole aisles of towels in stores and wanted to help get everyone served by the shelter a towel that would be their own to keep.”
At his fourth birthday party, Shrey asked guests to not bring any presents, but instead to bring a bath towel that could be donated to the teens. He received 15 towels, which was the exact amount of teens at the shelter, but he knew that the shelter had more needs and more people to serve, so Shrey got to work to expand the operation and grow his efforts. He immediately found support for his vision in the community.
“I started reaching out to businesses like my eye doctor and asked them to participate,” said Shrey. “Everyone was immediately willing to help out and eventually Towels for Teens started supporting youth shelters with 1,200-1,300 bath towels every year. I learned at a very young age how to ask adults for help and communicate, which built my confidence.”
“A child has to want to do something like give up his birthday presents to give items to those who need them,” added Seema. “Shrey always thought about how many towels any money or gifts could have bought him and he wanted to grow more and more.“
Expanding and including other ideas
While Towels for Teens has been more of a solo project, as Shrey got older, he found ways to spread the idea of service to more students like him, resulting in Service Club being established at his school, Harriet Bishop Elementary. After reflecting on his recent annual towel drive which had collected 900 towels, third grader Shrey realized that other kids his age didn’t have the same exposure to needs in the community as he did. His solution was to start a club at school to help complete a variety of community service projects.
“I needed him to understand how much work goes into something like a service club,” said Seema. “I knew it couldn’t be just us but thankfully he has never been shy about reaching out to people for help and he really delivered on his vision.”
Shrey and Seema approached Erin Huber who was a third grade teacher at Harriet Bishop at the time to act as the staff advisor and coordinator for the new club. Huber suggested that the club be limited to the older students, but Shrey was determined to include all grade levels, even kindergarten so that all students could help make an impact and bring new ideas to the table.
“They approached me about a club that met every other week that would be a free club for all grade levels,” said Huber. “It started small but grew quickly with 80 kids staying after school to participate with their parents and volunteers. Shrey’s ability to provide a space where kids can be caring and do the right thing was remarkable and it was such a wonderful group to work with.”
Service Club was the first club at the school available to all grade levels and the slogan quickly became “Young but Powerful” as students brought ideas for different projects. Club members were able to learn about and connect with different non profits and work on projects including packaging food for local food banks, making bracelets for kids in the hospital, making cards for senior citizens and service members overseas, and even growing and donating their hair to be used to make wigs for cancer patients.
A grant from State Farm allowed Service Club to expand to every school in the district with Shrey and the original club providing training on how to get started, but letting other schools run with it. Organizing and running a club is a lot of work for a ten year old, but Shrey stayed focused on his goals, even when it kept him from regular childhood activities.
“There were times that he had to do prep and work instead of just regular kid stuff,” said Seema. “He gave up a lot of his time doing that type of work but he became a great delegator with other kids and the adults who were helping.” “Shrey’s ability to lead and speak in front of a group to get them motivated for doing good was so powerful,” added Huber.
Where do we go from here?
When Shrey was in fifth grade, he was looking back at the past year of Service Club and had a lot to be proud of. More than 80 elementary school students had participated and the estimate was that about 10,000 people had been impacted by their work. As he had done before, he started to think about how to keep going and make more of an impact, ultimately resulting in what became known as Service Day Saturday.
“I was just looking at it like, if elementary school kids are able to do this, then why aren’t older people doing the same thing? A lot of these projects were super easy so I thought we could get more people to do them,” said Shrey. “I thought that if we could show some of the service projects we do in a city-wide event to others, that we could get people involved. We found a similar event on the east coast and reached out to the organizers who basically told me it was way too much for a kid to accomplish, which just made me want to do it more.”
Setting up a city-wide event would require more than just a highly motivated fifth grader, his supportive family, and his dedicated classmates. Shrey needed buy-in from the city, so he did what any fifth grader would do, he called the mayor to set up a meeting. Savage Mayor Janet Williams took the meeting and was immediately impressed with this kid and his big ideas.
“He had this plan to do a service day that would be run by the students that would benefit those in our community and beyond who were in need,” said Mayor Williams. “He wanted to encourage residents to make volunteering a regular part of their life and I thought it was a great idea. Folks at city hall got involved, businesses donated, other organizations stepped up, and every year it kept getting bigger!”
More than 700 people attended the first Service Day Saturday on a Saturday in April 2015. The event took place with a variety of booths being set up, all working on different projects with students from Service Club and their families leading the way. People were able to explore different options and find the project that they wanted to work on with lots of options including making crafts for children in the hospital, making dog toys or blankets for animal shelters, coloring on meals on wheels bags, making cards, and more.
Shrey says that a big part of the success of these initiatives is the support he received along the way.
“With every project that I did, there was unconditional support from all angles,” said Shrey. “Principals, teachers, superintendents, city officials, and of course my parents all said yes and encouraged me. Relationships that I have built over the years came from volunteering, and without their support, we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish all of this.”
Each year, Seema and Shrey would prepare an impact sheet on the event that would show the work that was completed. An example is 2017 where more than 1,000 people attended and they achieved some incredible numbers like 5,500 pounds of food donated to local food shelves and hunger relief programs, 4,000-plus lunch bags decorated with cheerful pictures for meals on wheels, 850 pairs of shoes donated to help Shoe Away Hunger, and the list goes on. The event in 2019 had more than 1,500 people attend and made an even bigger impact.
“People got more excited about the projects after seeing the kids so involved,” said Mayor Williams. “We pride ourselves on being a welcoming community and we believe in community service and helping each other. Service Day is absolutely going to be sticking around in Savage.”
As Shrey started high school, he found that he needed to step back a bit from some of the projects and passed the baton to his sister Meena who is in seventh grade. The COVID-19 pandemic ultimately ended up leading to the 2020 Service Day Saturday being canceled, and the 2021 and 2022 events pivoted to a donation drive, but there is hope that it will return to a full fledged event next year.
"Meena has taken over leadership of projects, but in her own way, now that Shrey is involved with other activities and is preparing to move on to college," said Seema. "He inspired a lot of youth, including his sister and she is doing a great job keeping the momentum strong."
Legacy of service
Shrey will graduate from BHS and plans to attend the University of Central Florida in Orlando where he will study zoology and film in hopes of becoming a documentary filmmaker. As he looks forward to his next step, he also looks back on the work he has done and wonders if he will be remembered or whether he did enough. While it may seem like a ridiculous thing to wonder, it’s safe to say that those who have worked with Shrey have strong opinions on what his legacy is and will continue to be.
“Shrey leaves a lasting legacy of service here at Harriet Bishop and across the district with service being such a part of our culture,” said Huber. “He showed that when challenges arise, kids have a voice and that you can’t underestimate what even the youngest kids are capable of.”
Burnsville High School Youth Service Coordinator Cortnee Floback helps students keep track of their service hours to earn credit, and prepare for college applications, but notes that Shrey has never submitted his hours and is just fully dedicated to the work.
“Shrey is an anomaly,” said Floback. “His passion to do things is so innate and he brings so much energy and creativity to what students can do. I am lucky to have met such a young individual who really inspires me to continue to do what I do and get better at it every year.”
“We will remember Shrey for sure, he will have a lasting legacy here” said Mayor Williams. “He showed us that it’s so important to listen to kids because that is where our future is. It is refreshing to get to watch these kids stand up and do this work and that started with Shrey.”
Shrey’s mom has seen more than anyone his journey in service and is encouraged by what can be accomplished even by young children.
“His legacy is not to underestimate youth or elementary students,” said Seema. “Elementary students can do amazing things and they aren’t restricted by adult hesitation and don’t really know what no means. He got people motivated and increased awareness of a lot of issues for students and their families.”
As for Shrey, he keeps collecting towels for shelters, provides some counsel to Meena if she asks for it, and plans to stay connected with the people who helped him with these projects along the way.
“With all of this, I just wanted to show that there is no age limit on service or helping others,” said Shrey. “People can overlook one person, but if you have a big passionate group of people to make change, that can speak volumes. I hope I can leave behind a little bit of the framework that we created and the systems we put in place and I am excited to see what happens next.”
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