High School Senior Pays It Forward With Food Insecurity and Tutoring Programs Formed During the Pandemic

Daily Point of Light # 7746 Feb 13, 2024

Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Anna Neblo. Read her story, and nominate an outstanding volunteer or family as a Daily Point of Light.

Anna Neblo is the daughter of a political science professor and an English teacher; she and her younger sister grew up with lively academic discussions around the dinner table. They’re a close bunch that includes 30 cousins and a black lab. As an academic at heart, Anna loves school but also finds joy in photography, graphic design, water polo and swimming, the last of which she offers lessons for pay and as a volunteer.

Anna’s expansive vocabulary, courtesy of her parents, extends beyond the English language as a participant in her school’s Spanish dual-language program. It’s one of the skills she brings with her to Service and Learning Together, or “SaLT,” as both an intern and a volunteer. Along with handling administrative tasks, grant writing and event coordination for the organization of 400-plus volunteers, she participates in their two impactful programs, Shop N’ Drop and Love2Learn. The former is a bi-weekly grocery delivery service that has helped 530 low-income families facing food insecurity get 30,000 bags of goods. The latter is a tutoring program for kids ages 6-12, many from the same families. Anna’s service drives her interest in studying public policy next year. In the meantime, she looks forward to celebrating her high school graduation and the four-year anniversary of Shop N’ Drop in the coming days.

What inspires you to volunteer?

I got started really young. My seventh-grade science teacher started a service-learning club at my middle school. I was one of the first people to join. In high school, I continued with service outside of school and through our Rotary Interact Club at Highland Park.

Ultimately, it comes down to the way I was raised. My parents are very generous people. They both have passions associated with giving back. They both love to teach and work with young people, but they also both grew up without very much money. They benefited from the kind of program that Shop N’ Drop is, so it was really important to me that I get involved with that. I understand the impact that it has even a generation later.

Outside of the Shop ‘n’ Drop site, Anna stands with her hand painted sign and themed bags that engage participating families while providing them useful paper products

What led you to volunteer with this initiative?

COVID hit during my eighth-grade year and I wasn’t able to continue the service-learning work that I’d been enjoying. So, my teacher offered me the opportunity to participate in Project Shop N’ Drop, which is how I began volunteering with SaLT.

The town I live in has a huge population of recent immigrants, and a lot of them work in the service industry, which was terribly affected by COVID. During lockdown, when their children weren’t getting free lunches at school and many of them had lost their jobs or weren’t able to work, there was a crisis. It was really hard to see my neighbors and classmates experiencing that. That’s where Shop N’ Drop began.

Project Love2Learn also started during COVID when kids were lacking in-person learning. We met to help them with homework and to give them a good time with other kids their age, but it’s expanded. Now, we have curriculum and books, and we do games, art and science projects.

Tell us about your role as an intern with SaLT.

There’s a team of high school student interns and they’re some of my best friends. They like to say SaLT is a student-run, adult-supported organization. Being an intern goes beyond the hands-on stuff with Shop N’ Drop and Love2Learn. For example, today, I went to pick up some bakery items that are being donated for tomorrow morning’s event. Deliveries and pickups are pretty consistent. We also help plan fundraiser events.

What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?

We learn how to write grants, plan fundraisers and do outreach to local organizations and businesses. None of it would be possible without the generosity of the community around us. We call it SaLT University because we learn skills that we’re going to need in adulthood.

Other than those concrete things, I’ve learned the importance of being able to communicate in a respectful and meaningful way. We didn’t want people to be standing outside in a line asking for food at Shop N’ Drop. That’s completely impersonal and sad. We always try to have respect for the people that we’re working with before we provide service. That means creating personal bonds. I’ve been to baby showers, birthday parties, and unfortunately, even funerals of people who have benefited from the Shop N’ Drop program. Those relationships are what makes SaLT stand out.

(Front, third from left) To celebrate three years in action, Anna joins the team at Shop ‘n’ Drop, one of her favorite SaLT programs

What’s been the most rewarding part of this work?

It’s getting to see people and getting to know them. You can directly see the impact on the community. I don’t always know who they are, privacy is really important to us, but to know that my neighbors and classmates are really benefiting from the things that we get to do is important. Also, the people we serve with have become some of my favorite people in the world. Getting to form those connections with people who are like-minded in service is the best part.

Why is it important for others to get involved with causes they care about?

Looking at the news can be really sad and dark, but people who volunteer understand that there is always action to be taken. It always makes me feel better. I’ve had a lot of people say that just witnessing the experiences I’ve had, and the impact of SaLT has made them feel better about humanity. Getting in there and getting hands-on makes you remember what amazing people and causes there are, and that despite the darkness that sometimes surrounds us, there’s always hope and progress.

What do you want people to learn from your story?

You’re not too young to get started. Alternatively, it’s never too late. I’ve found a lot of hope, passion and satisfaction in the work that I do, and I hope people will hear my story and know that there’s a place out there with that hope, passion and love for them as well.

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Anna? Find local volunteer opportunities.

Kristin Park