The Coast News Group
A volunteer with the FULL Project, a social entrepreneurial program headed by Pearl Park, a senior at Torrey Pines High School, helps during a recent distribution that provides food for elementary school students during school breaks. Courtesy photo

High School senior tackles food insecurity

REGION — Some teenagers prefer to spend their winter, spring and summer vacations surfing, shopping, going to the beach or simply doing nothing.

Carmel Valley resident Pearl Park, who is entering her senior year at Torrey Pines High School, has spent her recent breaks ensuring that elementary school children won’t go hungry when school is not in session.

As president of the FULL Project, an entrepreneurial enterprise she took over as part of Whatever It Takes, or WIT, she distributes groceries to 40 or 50 families from Kit Carson and Linda Vista elementary schools.

WIT is a college credit social entrepreneurship program based in San Diego, with operations in St. Louis, New York City and Austin, Texas.

It was founded in 2009 by Sarah Hernholm as a platform for youth to become social entrepreneurs and serve in leadership roles.

The only such college-credit program in the country, WIT offers participants six transferable units from the University of California San Diego for each year they complete a project.

During her freshman year Pearl began volunteering at the San Diego Food Bank and downtown homeless shelters, sometimes to help friends involved in service projects.

“I went to those places and it was an interesting experience,” she said. “I also like to work with kids. I’m part of Study Buddies, where we go to elementary schools and help students with homework. I also work part-time at Kumon learning centers.”

Pearl learned about WIT during her junior year, when Hernholm made a presentation about the program to her marketing class.

“It sounded so interesting to me and I talked to her after,” Pearl said.

Once she joined the program, Hernholm helped Pearl find a project that fit her passions. FULL was started by another WIT teen but went dormant when that person graduated.

“I was interested in starting something around soup kitchens or homeless shelters involving food,” Pearl said. “I went on the Facebook page and learned about the mission. It was so perfect. It was kids and food and dealing with them personally so I decided to take up that.”

Pearl works with the elementary school principals to compile a list of students who receive free or reduced breakfasts and lunches, which aren’t offered during school breaks.

She then contacts the families and invites them to her distributions, which so far are once during each of the four school breaks.

She also secures donations from a variety of sources, including friends, clubs at Torrey Pines, restaurants such as Bread and Cie and grocery stores such as NuttZo, Sprouts and Whole Foods, to name a few.

“This summer we worked with San Diego Senior Gleaners, who glean fruits from orchards and get food from restaurants that would have been thrown away. They give it to nonprofits like mine,” Pearl said.

Additionally, she holds fundraisers to buy whatever else is needed but not donated.

The teens are solely responsible for soliciting funding or donations.

“We help a teen tap into something that they’re passionate about and put action behind it,” Hernholm said. “We can’t want it more than you. That’s one of our 11 tips.

“Our whole mission is, if you’re passionate about something don’t just talk about it. Do something about it,” she added. “I want more than anything for every teen to be successful and to tap into their potential and their passion.

“But it’s not my job to do that for them,” Hernholm said. “I can provide the tools, the platform, the space but they have to step into their greatness and make a choice if they want something or not. When a teen experiences a win they earn it’s much more gratifying.”

Pearl said she struggled at first to get donations because she thought it would be easier and more productive to ask the big corporations.

“I had to scale down and I learned the smaller, local companies are more likely to donate,” she said.

Calling to invite families to the distributions was also a challenge at first.

“A lot of the families were primarily Spanish-speaking households so when I called them it was very difficult,” said Pearl, who was learning Spanish in school, but not enough to be fluent. “I learned from that experience.

“For my second distribution I got volunteers that spoke Spanish and I wrote a script out before I called the families,” she added.

What happened when she read her script and people responded in Spanish?

“Oh, that was difficult,” she said. “But I also had a list of phrases, like ‘Please speak slower.’”

Pearl said one of her most gratifying experiences was when a grandmother who wasn’t on the list arrived at her first distribution.

“She was telling me how she had to raise her grandkids alone,” Pearl said. “So I told her to take what she needed. She seemed so happy. She was shocked. She couldn’t believe she could get that much food for free.”

WIT charges $2,200 for a nine-month session. Hernholm said financial aid is available to ensure the program is accessible to all.

“It is essential that we have our teens mixing from different walks of life and building things together and not just staying in their silos,” she said. “It’s very important that we expose people to different neighborhoods.”

Other WIT projects include a financial literacy program for middle school students, a newspaper that runs stories written by elementary school students and bracelet sales that commit the purchasers to not engaging in body shaming or bullying conversations.

“We ask the teens what they’re curious or passionate about and a cause they care about,” Hernholm said. “We help a teen combine that to create an enterprise.

“It’s my belief that if more people were walking around in this world doing what they’re passionate about, and that passion led to serving others and was profitable, we’d have much happier people because you’d be of service to others and honoring yourself and doing something you’re passionate about and you’re making money,” she added.

“I’m just really thankful for having WIT in my life,” said Pearl, who hopes to attend the University of Pennsylvania or Columbia University next year.

“It’s helped me improve my business literacy skills and professional skills, public speaking skills and personally learning more about time management and having discipline and putting my own passion to use.”