When Samantha Berk was 10 she delivered food trays with her family on Christmas day to police and fire stations in her hometown of Trenton, N. J. “To see their faces meant a lot to me,” Samantha said.
She believes that provided the spark for her interest in volunteering at the Laguna Food Pantry when she moved to Laguna when her father got a job transfer.
Last week, Samantha, who will be a senior this fall at Laguna Beach High School, was elected an honorary board member. Although her vote does not count in board decision-making, she believes “they wanted me to give my input from a youth point of view,” Samantha said.
During her first board meeting, held in the Alternative Sleeping Location adjacent to the Pantry, Samantha, now 16, was quick to volunteer to fill a void for a scribe to write thank you notes to donors. “She jumped right in,” said board President Korey Jorgensen, 71. “I believe Samantha is emblematic of many students that want to help and just don’t know where to go,” he said.
Students are required to fulfill 40 hours of community service in order to graduate from LBHS. Samantha’s tally already exceeds 300 hours. She expects the extra service hours to pay off for her when she applies for college, as she thinks “volunteer work is becoming more heavily weighted, they want to see more about you.”
Samantha revitalized the Laguna Food Pantry Club, which had been inactive at LBHS last year, and will continue to serve as club president. She’s already lined up her successors: sister, Jessica, 14, and brother, Matthew, 13, who have agreed to follow in her footsteps by guiding the LBHS Food Pantry Club.
Even so, burnishing a college application is not what motivates Samantha to volunteer. “The pantry is an amazing place. It’s refreshing to see everyone come in,” she said. The Pantry occupies one room of a manufactured housing unit that is lined with four large folding tables and three refrigerators. A variety of fresh produce, meat and canned goods fill the shelves.
Samantha particularly likes to experience the aftermath of a big event, like the Super Bowl, when the Pantry is often flooded with donated leftovers. “When the little kids come in and see the desserts, they get really excited. They don’t care that it is a big football cookie cake; that’s when it all comes together. It’s really rewarding.”
Not all of her volunteer days leave Samantha feeling joyous. On one occasion, she says she was upset when several teens showed up to volunteer at the Food Pantry, but left because they were scared. The Pantry shares a parking lot with the overnight homeless shelter and often people make use of the parking lot during the day to camp out in tents.
While one of their parents called to apologize for their behavior, Samantha found their actions and reluctance to participate or volunteer upsetting since “no one should go without eating,” she lamented.
The Pantry serves as a free weekly food haven for about 300 lower income families, individuals and students, who cannot buy or afford enough food to meet their basic needs, according to the organization’s website.
The pantry evolved from the Laguna Resource Center, which got its start in the aftermath of the 1993 firestorm. Its new mission emerged along with a change of leadership. Now, a mostly all-volunteer effort picks up and dispenses 2,000 lbs. of donated fresh and frozen food from participating markets, including Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and most recently Gelson’s. Patrons are allowed to visit once a week with only a sign in sheet to show they qualify.
Often those that benefit from shopping at the Pantry are its volunteers. Sally, 50, who used a pseudonym to shield her three kids from embarrassment, works at two jobs. She became a patron and volunteer after her 20-year marriage dissolved. Sally now sleeps on a couch in a one-bedroom apartment. She tells her children “there are always people worse off.” After picking up groceries, she said, “I’ll be here at 8 a.m. tomorrow morning to help stock the shelves.”
More info: 949 497-7121 or LagunaFoodPantry.org