Eighteen-year-old Charlotte Harrigan has always been passionate about volunteering. Growing up in a family of volunteers, she loved serving at her church and other local organizations. In 2016, she joined SaLT, or Service and Learning Together, an organization that coordinates service trips for students in the Chicagoland area. Through SaLT, Charlotte has traveled to Orlando and New Orleans on four different service trips since 2016. SaLT also serves their local community through volunteering with Misericordia Home and the Ronald McDonald House.
When SaLT’s service work was halted during COVID, Charlotte still wanted to help out her community in some way, so she helped organize Project Shop N Drop. The project began in May 2020 with 25 families in need of extra help during the pandemic, and has since grown to serve over 170 families. Every other week, Charlotte leads volunteers in putting together hundreds of bags of donated food and toiletries.
What is SaLT and what is your volunteer role with it?
SaLT is an organization that stands for Service and Learning Together. It was started by two adults [Brad Swanson and Ida Fiore] who had been teachers. … They wanted kids to be able to travel and learn about history and do service work all around the country. They didn’t want it to be a financial burden on anybody, so it was a lot about scholarships. There was always an eighth grade trip in our town where you would go to D.C. and a lot of kids couldn’t go because they didn’t have the money, so Brad and Ida started a scholarship foundation. So many people wanted to go travel and do service that they started SaLT. SaLT goes to Alaska, New Orleans, Orlando and New York. It’s just them two and they take a group of about 20 kids and you go and do service work. This past June, I went to New Orleans and I was an intern for them. We got to work on rebuilding houses for teachers. We worked on a bunch of Hurricane Katrina relief and learning about the culture of New Orleans, because it doesn’t get enough recognition. People don’t realize that New Orleans is still struggling from the hurricane that was 16 years ago. That trip was really about obviously helping the community, but also spreading the word about the help our country still needs. Bringing it home is a lot of what SaLT is about.
Describe Project Shop N Drop.
Project Shop N Drop started in May 2020. We started with 25 families. Our goal was to help families who were greatly impacted by COVID, whether they lost their jobs and they needed help food-wise. We had a core base of 25 families we knew needed help. It’s been 16 months and we’re still going. We’ve served over 170 families now. Every single donation given to us goes to our families and we think that’s something very special. Every other week, we get a group of volunteers to come in. We get a bunch of donations or we go shopping with money we have from donations and we fill up a food room. Then volunteers come in and we give them an assigned number of food or what’s going in each bag, and these volunteers pack 100 bags of food and 100 bags of toiletries. … Every other week [the families will] come in on a Saturday or we’ll deliver if [the families] don’t have a car. They usually get around two bags of food — perishable food items and then a bag of produce. The produce is usually milk, yogurt and vegetables that we’ve been getting weekly donations from a catering business in the Chicago area and also Fight2Feed in Chicago. Then every family gets a bag of paper towels, toilet paper, hand sanitizers and masks, just to keep them safe.
Describe your volunteer experience with Give Kids the World.
I went with SaLT to Orlando to go to Give Kids the World. It’s a Make-A-Wish foundation, and kids whose wish to go to Disney World get to stay at Give Kids the World. It is basically Candyland blown up in person. It is amazing. … My first year, I helped in the kitchen and every time a family would come in, we would take a tray and we would help the family or the kids get their food. You would sit down with them and sometimes they would tell you a little bit about them or they would want to learn about you. After that, there was always a themed party so all the kids would dress up. … The next year I went, I got to ride around in a golf cart and I had cookies and hot chocolate. Kids at the park or on their way back to the village after the themed party would stop me and they would get cookies and hot chocolate. It really is just all about the kids, and it’s an amazing place that I don’t think gets enough recognition.
What kind of effect do you think your volunteer work has had on you?
I have bad anxiety. When I do something, I don’t tend to love it. I’ve always played sports and I’ve always liked it, but sometimes I feel like ‘ugh, I don’t want to go,’ and it would make my anxiety worse. Whenever I engage in service work, I never have an ‘ugh, I don’t want to do this’ [moment]. It’s always something that makes me forget about everything else that’s going on in my brain. It helps me be able to be who I am in a better way. I say if it wasn’t for Shop N Drop, I can’t imagine how horrible my COVID would have been. But Shop N Drop gave me something to do and something to look forward to. All the service work I’ve been doing, it gave me a reason to keep powering through the hardness of COVID.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
I think the most rewarding part is the relationships we have with the families. We’re not just an ordinary food bank. We are a place where our families can come and trust us. We’ve helped families with evictions, filling out the census, getting the vaccine, finding jobs. We really try to respect our families and communicate our love to our families before we’re there to give them food. … My favorite, most rewarding part about all of Shop N Drop is this one family. I went to deliver them a Christmas Eve meal and I noticed that they didn’t have a Christmas tree. The next morning [fellow volunteer Jagger Barnes] and I brought our fake Christmas tree that was at our site to the family and wrapped a bunch of presents for the kids. They were so happy. The presents were very small things we don’t realize make such a big difference. Being able to not only serve our families, but also having the connection and being a part of the our families’ lives, is the most powerful and impactful part of the whole project.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
No matter how much I want something or no matter how much I feel like something isn’t fair in my life, I’ve learned I can take a step back now and realize how lucky I am. Our leadership board was talking about how if we want something to eat for dinner, our parents can run out to the store and get our dinner just for that night. Whereas one of our families didn’t have enough food, so they gave their kids the food first and the parents ate the leftovers. It’s not learning how fortunate you are, even though it is — it’s just putting into perspective everything you do compared to someone else who isn’t as lucky as you.
Why do you think it’s important for others to give back?
One of our main mottos is ‘stronger together.’ Everything you do impacts somebody else, whether it’s they’re getting something from you, or they’re going to do something because they saw you do it. If I picked up a piece of trash and then someone saw me and they went and picked up a piece of trash, we’re stronger together because now we just picked up two pieces of trash, helping our entire community. We’re stronger together and we realize something small can have a huge impact on somebody else.
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