An avid soccer player since childhood, Riley squeezes a lot out of life. High school soccer and club soccer keep her busy, but never at the expense of the families she serves through diverse service opportunities offered by Service and Learning Together (SaLT). Riley always finds time out of her busy schedule to make a positive difference in her community.
When Riley started with SaLT three years ago, the organization served 25 families. In 2023, that number grew to 530 families. In that time, SaLT has distributed more than 30,000 shopping bags of food and supplies.
What inspires you to volunteer?
When I was a 7th grader, I was encouraged by my science teacher to join a middle school service club called Northwood Gives Back. I quickly fell in love with serving others. Then the COVID pandemic struck, which meant we had to shift gears. The teacher who started Northwood Gives Back along with three other students and Brad Swanson started a new initiative called Shop and Drop, which is now a branch of SaLT. I collected donated clothing items, washed them and distributed them to Lake County area families fighting food insecurity.
Tell us about your volunteer role with SaLT.
Service and Learning Together is a nonprofit organization based in Highland Park, Illinois. SaLT has many service branches that include service trips, Love2Learn which is tutoring for children of the families we serve, Take Care packages for migrant families that help them set up new lives in the Chicago area, and a Shop ‘n Drop program where we buy groceries and supplies for food-insecure families. We also make SaLT candles which are decorated with the seven SaLT principles, and we hold several service-learning trips every year.
I help ensure that the 530-plus families we serve receive adequate food and household necessities.
I volunteer nearly every day for SaLT, which works out to about 5-7 hours a week. We’re always involved and engaged with our families. Most of the work is done by 12 student volunteers. We are student-run and adult-supported.
Going back to a few years ago, I started a branch of SaLT called Dream Big which provided physical activity for children of our families (during covid) – basketball, art, singing. Once schools opened up again there wasn’t such a pressing need for this branch, so today, I participate in all of these but most of my time is spent helping families to provide them with what they need. I organize groceries and daily necessities, do shopping for our families through Shop ‘n Drop, and either drop these supplies off at their homes or meet them at a pick-up point.
I also work on securing donations from corporate sponsors and community members through social media and email campaigns. I do whatever is needed for our families.
What inspired you to get started with this initiative?
Seventh grade is a young age to start volunteering, but when my middle school science teacher, Ida Fiore, encouraged me to join Northwood Gives Back, I immediately started seeing the reactions of the families we were helping. It was very moving, and there was absolutely no doubt in my mind about working with SaLT as a high schooler.
What are your long-term plans for goals for the organization?
My long-term plans for SaLT are to get as many people involved as possible. One of our guiding principles is, “Bring it Home,” which means to spread our impact and get more people involved. We hope to continue to be the safety net for food-insecure families in the area. Our grand vision is to end food insecurity.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
I’m a positive person. I smile a lot. It’s rewarding not only to see the grateful smiles on families’ faces, but to spread smiles. We recently made and dropped off holiday meals for our families. I stayed and played with one of the little girls and the new toys we had purchased. She was so filled with joy.
In 2020, we had a holiday event for our families where we handed out gifts. The kids were so excited to open gifts! I believe there wasn’t a single dry eye at the event. We love to receive updates from our families. For example, one dad recently got a job, and the family sent us a picture of him on his first day at his new job. I feel like I am part of 530 families.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
I learned to be confident in myself. I do a lot of public speaking now, and a lot of reaching out of my comfort zone. Being a part of SaLT has made me the most confident version of myself. I’d like to share the SaLT guiding principles, because they have helped shape me as a person. All of those guiding principles are printed on our candles that we sell to raise funds. We hope that people take these lessons home with them.
“Unplug” says put down the phone. Live in the moment. Be fully present with people.
“Little By Little” is a guiding principle I live by every day. I can’t change everything all at once, but small steps add up to big actions.
“This is It” is another principle that also encourages you to live in the moment, look at why you are doing something and understand the impact you’re making.
“Bring it Home” means to spread the word. We use social media to build awareness. We post about SaLT, tell our stories and encourage community involvement.
“Communicate Love” talks about the power of spreading a smile, staying positive, being kind to everyone and doing everything from a place of love.
“Be Flexible” means embrace whatever’s next. Nothing is perfect, things change fast, there are ups and downs and unexpected things happen. Change may be hard, but acceptance is a real attitude adjuster. In the end it’s for a great cause.
“Respect” is the art of empathy rather than being sympathetic. Show that you can feel what they feel instead of just showing that you care.
Tell us about future partnerships, programs or events that you are excited about.
I’m looking forward to continuing with Take Care packages; this new venture with immigrants. There is another Shop ’n Drop date coming up soon. It’s nice to reconnect and get together with our families and other volunteers.
Why is it important for others to get involved with causes they care about?
Everyone has the power to make a difference. If you believe in something you will feel so much more committed, and your passion will inspire other people. Even if you think you only play a small part, you can make change.
Any advice for people who want to start volunteering?
Reflect on an issue that doesn’t sit right with you, something you can do to fix it. Every day people walk by some kind of injustice and there’s always something for someone to help with. Follow your passion and also explore various vol opportunities to find a hidden passion.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
Shop ‘n Drop started in a vacant space serving 25 families. Today, we serve 530 families, and we’ve distributed over 30,000 shopping bags filled with groceries and supplies. Three years ago, I would never have imagined the scope of our impact. I am blessed and humbled to be considered part of the safety net of these families.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Riley? Find local volunteer opportunities.