At the age of 6, Ava Gresser’s journey into volunteerism began with a simple yet profound moment. Sitting in the car with her mother, they cruised down the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago when her eyes fixed upon a disheartening sight – litter strewn carelessly along the highway’s shoulder.
Helen Dixon, Ava’s mother, recalled, “As an adult, you tend to overlook these things in your day-to-day life, but Ava pointed and said, ‘It’s so dirty, Mom. Who’s doing something about it?’”
As Helen searched for an answer, Ava declared, “I’m going to do something about it.”
Together, they searched for volunteer opportunities and came across The Honeycomb Project, an organization that empowers kids to lead the charge for social change. Ava’s journey with Honeycomb began with her first project, helping to clear invasive species in a nature reserve.
Her dedication led her to volunteer in numerous other initiatives, including building bookshelves for Chicago classrooms, assembling and packing toys for hospitalized children and serving food at a women’s shelter. With an average of one to three projects a month, Ava established herself as a passionate volunteer.
Fast forward to today. Ava, now 14, has taken on an even greater role within Honeycomb. She serves as a member of the Honeycomb Leadership Corps, helping lead volunteer programs and mentoring younger participants. She is also a youth correspondent for Honeycomb, conducting interviews with project coordinators, parents and young volunteers to get the scoop on the day’s project. These interviews are then shared on Honeycomb’s social media platforms to inspire others to make a positive impact within their community.
Tell us about The Honeycomb Project and why you like volunteering with the organization.
The Honeycomb Project is all about strengthening Chicago’s communities with families. Kids of any age can volunteer. And there are a variety of projects that you can choose from, whatever spikes your interest. My favorite ones at the moment are the beach cleanup and the Chicago Furniture Bank, where we sort kitchenware, furniture and other household goods to help furnish homes for impoverished families.
Honeycomb sets up their projects in a way that’s interactive and fun. It makes kids want to get involved. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I was able to make food at a women’s shelter and serve it out. A couple of other ones I did were making bookshelves for CPS (Chicago Public Schools) classrooms and making blankets and toys for the cats and dogs at the Anti-Cruelty Society.
A way I can get Honeycomb more out there and more volunteers is by being their youth correspondent. I go around and interview volunteers. I ask them what they like about Honeycomb, why they did this project, the impact that they made and if they’d do it again, and that gets posted to Honeycomb’s social media pages. Last year, I co-emceed their annual fundraiser to help them raise over $100,000.
What’s one volunteer project that is particularly memorable for you?
During COVID, seniors couldn’t get out and buy their groceries or other necessities they needed, so families bought groceries with their own money, and we helped deliver them to senior homes. I remember one elderly man came up to me when I was working at the fruit and vegetable table, and he told me that he didn’t have any food stamps left for the rest of the month, so he couldn’t buy any more food. He said he was grateful that we came by because he wouldn’t have had anything to eat. It really made me see the impact that I was making, especially during such a hard time for everyone.
How has your passion for volunteerism been recognized?
When I was 8 years old, I won a Disney “Be Inspired” grant and donated the funds to the Honeycomb Project. I won the Guaranteed Impact Award in 2017. And during Covid, I won a couple Hershey grants, which I used to help fund the Chicago Furniture Bank project and the Senior Citizens Home project.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
Being able to see the impact I’m making, especially at the senior citizens’ home or at the women’s shelter. I got to see people’s faces light up and it truly makes you feel grateful that you were able to help.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
If I didn’t volunteer, I wouldn’t have been a youth correspondent or an emcee. When I’m older, I want to be a news reporter so the work that I’m doing now has prepared me for that.
Why is it important for others, especially youth, to get involved in causes they care about?
I believe that we are the future. If you want to be an advocate for the things that you’re passionate about in the future, you have to start speaking up now. Especially as a teen today, there are so many ways to do it such as TikTok and Instagram. I created my own advocacy page on Instagram where I share my thoughts on pressing topics like volunteerism or school education systems.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
That the smallest actions can accomplish the biggest things. Volunteering only takes an hour or two out of your day. But every time you show up, the hours add up. The awards and grants that I’ve won definitely make me proud, but what makes me the proudest is seeing pictures of myself over the years volunteering at different projects and thinking about the impact I’ve made.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Ava? Find local volunteer opportunities.