Seventeen-year-old Meredith Barnhart, a senior at The Fletcher Academy in Raleigh, is on the autism spectrum, and she says reading social cues can be tough. But it’s never stopped her from volunteering. Through a project at the school, which caters to students with learning disabilities, Barnhart discovered a need among infants and set out to meet it. Here, she talks about the challenges behind the project and how they haven’t discouraged her from pursuing a career serving others.
Q: Tell me about the Community Service and Leadership class you took at school.
A: In the fall we visited three different organizations: Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, Passage Home and the Haliwa School, and we were asked to pick one of those three organizations and create an idea that could help both the organization and the community.
I chose Inter-Faith Food Shuttle because I noticed when the volunteer manager was touring us, they had programs for children and adults and seniors, but she said any baby food they get is put aside, and I thought, "I can do something with that."
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Q: What was your initial idea?
A: To establish a food drive, Operation Nourishment, where I’m working with the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle to gather donations of unopened baby food so that I could go to a mobile market — where any accumulated donations go to low-income areas in the Triangle — and pass out baby food to parents who can’t afford to take care of their infants and toddlers.
Q: How has it been going?
A: I had an interview back in March with someone at Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, and she talked to me about things I could do to give myself a boost. I came up with calling Gerber and Earth’s Best and trying to get a grant or a sponsorship, but Gerber said it doesn’t fund individual projects, and I didn’t hear back from Earth’s Best.
Q: Where do you go from here?
A: Interfaith has two more mobile markets this month, but I doubt I can accumulate enough donations by then to make it. What I’m trying to do now is accumulate food and then at the end of the month create one big individual food drive at a homeless shelter or a community with struggling parents and infants.
Q: If people want to help, where can they drop off unopened baby food?
A: That would be absolutely wonderful; they can bring food to Fletcher Academy. (The address is below.)
Q: Why is this cause important to you?
A: I’m doing this to bring awareness that infants need nourishment too. They’re so little and helpless, and their parents might not be able to afford to take care of them.
Q: Is this the first time you’ve volunteered?
A: No; I volunteered for about three or four years with the YMCA.
Q: What do you enjoy the most about giving back?
A: I enjoy the feeling that it gives me; it makes me smile, but deep down it’s so much more than that. It’s such a strong feeling of love, like, "Wow, I’m actually making a change." I’m important, and I have a purpose.
Q: You’ll graduate in a few weeks. What are your plans for summer and fall?
A: I’m going to be volunteering at Glenaire, the retirement community, because I want to start the path to my career as a medical social worker. I love the elderly community, and I would love to work with them throughout my career.
Q: What do you love about working with older people?
A: I guess it’s just a view instilled in me. People call me an “old lady” because of the way my style is, the way I dress, the way I decorate my space and the way I live my life. I am a very old soul, and I really don’t like the internet all that much, not that that’s speaking for all of the elderly population, but I do think in many ways I’m able to connect with that community on an emotional level if that makes sense.
Q: Where will you go to college in the fall?
A: I’ll be attending UNC-Greensboro majoring in social work, and after I get my bachelor’s, I plan on going back for my master’s. (At that level) I’ll have more than 500 hours of what they call field placements where I’ll be basically going around having internships in the hospitals, and I’m really excited about that.
Born: June 25, 2000, Raleigh
Education: UNC-Greensboro in the fall, majoring in social work.
Family: 3 siblings
Fun Fact: She’s a triplet
To donate: Drop off new, unopened baby food at Fletcher Academy (400 Cedarview Court; Raleigh 27609)