At just thirteen, Olivia Ohlson has made more of an impact in her community than many people do in their lifetimes. Over the past several years, the Evanston, Ill.-native has volunteered to help senior citizens, hospital patients, essential workers, low-income families, cancer patients, veterans, struggling students, and many more.
Olivia is an active volunteer with the Chicago nonprofit The Honeycomb Project, where she volunteers across a variety of projects ranging from organizing clothing and food donations, to sewing blankets and making cookies for kids in the hospital. After her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, she started Olivia’s Pink Lemonade and Cookie Stands, which raised over $7,000 for the NorthShore Kellogg Cancer Center where her mother was treated. She is a pen pal to a handful of senior citizens, hand making cards to send to them every other week.
During the current pandemic, Olivia started offering free tutoring to her fellow students and also created a Youtube channel to post math tutoring and reading videos. She started Hygiene Kits for Evanston’s Underserved, where she fundraises, assembles and then distributes free hygiene kits to people in need. She will drop what she’s doing to help someone, including recently making coffee cake with her mother for 120 senior citizens immediately after having heard that their care facility would struggle to serve them breakfast the following morning due to employees catching Covid. Olivia has proven time and time again that she will do anything she can to lift up those in need.
Describe your volunteer role with the Honeycomb Project.
It’s a Chicago-run nonprofit. It was started a few years after I was born. You can go as an adult, but it’s mostly for families with all different-aged kids. I’ve been to 20 projects. They host indoor projects and outdoor projects for a range of different causes. The outdoor ones you help plant to help against global warming and things like that. We’ve done more of the indoor ones. … We’ve organized clothes for food drives and clothing donations multiple times. We made cookies for families with kids with cancer. We went three times to sew blankets for kids in hospitals. We made mats for homeless. We’ve written letters to veterans. We made posters for the Vietnam War memorial museum in Chicago. We’ve been there multiple times for projects. We wrote letters to Vietnam veterans. Two more recent ones that we’ve done is I helped practice with para-athletes who were kids. We helped them prepare for their soccer tournament later in the afternoon. Then we went to a wheelchair basketball tournament in which I photographed the players and ran the scoreboard.
Describe what Olivia’s Pink Lemonade and Cookie Stands does.
For that project, I hosted different stands. I hosted two the first year in the summer of 2017, and the following year I hosted two more. I sold lemonade and cookies and I gave all the money to the NorthShore Kellogg Cancer Center in Evanston. On their website, they also have a link we send people to where they could donate online. I raised $7,000 for breast cancer research. I would like to continue next year if it’s safe [from the Covid pandemic]. … The lemonade-cookie stands were because my mom had breast cancer the spring before I hosted the stand. I want to be a biomedical engineer, so I was really interested in the whole process of her surgery and the post recovery and all that, so I wanted to raise money for breast cancer research and really provide support for women like my mom who didn’t have family to help them.
Can you talk to me about what you’re doing to help people during the pandemic?
One of the things I like to do is I chalk positive messages in my neighborhood. I often tutored kids throughout the pandemic of different ages in my district to help bring them up to grade level. It’s all been for free, and we just ask that if the families could afford to pay, then they donate to the NorthShore Kellogg Cancer Center. For my biggest project, I’m running Hygiene Kits for Evanston’s Underserved. We take in-kind donations and cash donations, and then with the cash we go to the store and buy all the hygiene products that are necessary to make the kits, and then I make the kits myself. We’ve made 300-400 kits about. Every first and third Wednesday of the month, we go to my church, which is Vineyard Church in Evanston. We go to their local food drive. On the first and third Wednesday, they also have diaper [distributions], so we go with the diaper people and we pass out the hygiene kits. Vineyard is associated with the Chicago Food Depository so they do [the food drive] every week but we only come every other week. … Next week we’re giving away kits to two former high school students at my future high school who have ran a successful food drive up there, where they got meals and groceries and passed it out to over 300 families two weeks ago. They’re doing it again so we wanted to offer the hygiene kits there.
There were two other projects that involved baking during Covid. One was my dad works for CPA, so we made a bag full of cookies, and I wrote letters on them, and I did little origami ninja stars and I wrote ‘Have a great day’ on them. I taped them to each of the bag of cookies. Then my dad brought them into work and he passed them out. He sent us pictures and there were these people throwing ninja stars around. He was like, it was crazy because there were adults throwing little toys around. It was just funny and it was nice to see. I’m glad we were able to support the essential workers in such an easy way.
The next one we did was for seniors. … My mom’s coworker’s daughter, Trish, found this senior home that needed breakfast because a lot of their workers were stressed to the bone. Some of them had gotten Covid, and they couldn’t find a way to serve everyone breakfast in the morning. They needed breakfast at 7 a.m. We found out the night before that my mom’s coworker needed help getting together breakfast, so we split it amongst my mom’s coworkers. She did the eggs, another coworker did fruit cups with her daughter, and my mom and I made my grandmother’s coffee cake recipe for 120 people. We found out about 4:30. We went to the grocery store, got all the supplies we needed. We were back by like 6:30, ate dinner, and then we were just baking until like 1 o’clock the next morning, bagging everything, putting it in a bin. I was asleep on the couch. I was exhausted. Then 6:30 the next morning, my mom’s coworker came and we gave the bin to her and she brought it to the nursing home. It was a pretty hectic day but it was really fun.
I heard you’ve also started a Youtube channel?
I read either chapter books or children books, or I have multiple books that discuss different heroes, sports icons, politicians, engineers, doctors, or mostly just famous people who are important, who people — kids especially — might not have heard of before. In the reading videos, I either read a chapter from a chapter book or I read two little biography paragraphs. I also do math videos where I do math by grade level. My most recent one, I did multiplication, and I’m going to do fractions, additions and subtractions. As I said earlier, I offer tutoring, and this is just a back up to that. If the parents can’t find a time every week to sit down because of their schedule or they have to work, or the kid is not going to sit down for a half hour for me to tutor with them, then they can come to this as an extra layer of support. It’s just like five minute videos that will give them a little bit of a nudge-up for the next school year.
What inspires you to volunteer in so many different ways?
My mom always instilled in me that need to help others, and my dad as well. They did service projects when they were older. They did all sorts of things to help the community, and I just wanted to be a part of that too. They always taught me to help other people and to support people in the best way you can without being too overbearing, so I was just trying to do as much as I possibly could, especially during the pandemic, to help out. Even before that, there would be moments in my life where I felt that people without their family would need more support, and I wanted to be that support for other people. When my grandpa two years ago had to go into a senior home … he absolutely hated it. He struggled there and said it was really lonely, to live with people you might not know or not have access to your family as much because they can’t live with you anymore. The year after that, we ran a service project that my mom and I totally organized at the nearby senior home, where I invited a lot of my friends. The home provided seniors that were interested in coming. We brought tons of cookie decorating kits. We made cookies ourselves. We brought frosting and sprinkles. We had about fifty people there and I invited my friends and my families and we decorated cookies with the seniors. We talked to them and we passed out the cookies. If they wanted a drink, we got them apple juice. It was really fun because I think it was the highlight of celebrating the holidays with people that might not have been able to celebrate with young people such as ourselves. It was a really good experience. Whenever I feel people are being undeserved — as is the title of my hygiene kits — I try to support that group as much as I can.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
I think the most rewarding thing is to see that people are just so grateful for what we’re doing. When we pass out the kits, I’ll be like “Would you like a hygiene kit?” and they’re like “Huh?” Then I’ll lift it up out of the car, because it’s a drive-in thing because of Covid, and … I used plastic bags, so they’ll see the items in there and they’ll be like, “Thank you so much!” like they didn’t know this was even an offered service. A lot of the times, families because they’re coming to get diapers for their children at home, they’ll be like, “Thank you so much, this is exactly what I needed.” I feel like that is a really rewarding part of what I do right now, just because I get to see there is a way to make people smile even during a pandemic. There’s ways you can support them or just bring ease about a certain thing. Now they don’t have to dish out that extra 20 dollars to go get supplies. They know they already have it. I think that’s the most rewarding part.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
I think I would like people to learn that you are never too young to help people. You’re never too old to help people. You’re never too inexperienced. You can just pick up somebody’s pencil that they dropped, or write them a short letter, or give them a sticky note that says ‘Have a great day,’ and that will make a difference in their lives. They’ll remember that small action and that little things mean a lot. Recently there was a gentleman who worked at my elementary school who everybody just loved and he made little impacts on everybody that really came [to light] because he died this week. Everyone was really sad and they really came out. There’s a poster that a lot of kids wrote on about the little things he did to make their day easier, or to make them laugh, or make them smile, that really made an impact on their life. I know they’ll remember that, and he did that for them even though they were so young when it happened. I think that is something that everyone should know. Little things matter and people will remember them.
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