Lauren Seroyer, a 16-year-old Peachtree Ridge High School student, received the Spark Prize from the United Way to expand the CARE Closet, a fully stocked food pantry, to every high school in Gwinnett.
Photo: Photo courtesy of Chelonnda Seroyer
Photo: Photo courtesy of Chelonnda Seroyer

Gwinnett teen wins $25K to help hungry classmates

Lauren Seroyer was eating breakfast in a classroom when a question from a friend inspired her to take action.

Her friend had already eaten his meal, provided through Peachtree Ridge High School's nutrition program, but he asked if she had any more food left over, because he was hungry and didn't have much food at home.

"I was astounded. Although I had been downtown to feed the hungry in Atlanta before, I never suspected that this would be an issue around my own community," the 16-year-old rising junior said. "I had to look deeper down into the issue, because I was almost certain, even before the research, that he was not the only student in my community that was practically going hungry on a day-to-day basis."

A hungry child often feels sick or tired, has problems concentrating in school, lacks energy or motivation and can have behavioral issues, according to the 2015 Hunger in Our Schools report published by Share Our Strength, a nonprofit that runs the No Kid Hungry campaign. According to the report, six in 10 educators say school meals are the primary source of nutrition for "a lot or most" of the children in their school.

Lauren created the CARE Closet. CARE stands for Community Assistance and Resource Effort.

She worked with counselors to make sure the closet is confidential, so no child would have to be embarrassed to ask for help. And she found lots of support from her classmates.

"It took much less effort than I thought it would have to get my classmates involved," Lauren said. "As soon as they heard about my solution to this problem, I literally had people come to me asking about ways that they could contribute to the cause. In addition, I have gotten almost every single school club involved, and they have all conducted food drives, providing the CARE Closet with great amounts of non-perishable goods."

Within days of kicking off her first food drive, Lauren said she had an "arsenal" of donations. And in less than two months, her counselor told her that about 20 families had been helped with the food.

"I have no idea who they are. I never want to know who they are. I only care about the fact that people are receiving help," she said. "That is so exciting."

Chelonnda Seroyer, mom to Lauren and her twin brother, Grant, who has helped the project come to fruition, said she wasn't surprised her daughter had the heart to help a hungry classmate. She was impressed with her determination, however, especially when Lauren created and delivered a presentation to school officials to get the go-ahead.

"The fact that she was willing to look beyond what made her uncomfortable in an effort to help her peers was absolutely amazing to me, because I literally watched her concern for others outweigh her concern for her own comfort zone," Seroyer said of witnessing her daughter willingly go to the principal's office for a good cause.

With the success of the CARE Closet at Peachtree Ridge, Lauren was encouraged to consider applying for a prize called the Spark Award from the local chapter of the United Way. The award could fund an expansion to other local high schools.

Lauren created a short video explaining the CARE Closet, hoping she had a shot even though most of the other applicants were adults. "This truly is a project that has started from the heart," she said. "(I thought) I could possibly stand out in that way."

And stand out she did. The CARE Closet was one of two winners of the $25,000 grant. That amount is enough to put a fully stocked CARE Closet into every Gwinnett County high school that would like one, she said. Lauren is already in talks with Central Gwinnett High School officials to create the second location there.

But first, this summer she will attend the Atlanta Community Food Bank Youth Summit with her brother to learn more about hunger issues and what the twins can do to help.

Lauren also was chosen as an ANNPower Fellow. She and 49 other young women will head to New York for a four-day leadership program sponsored by ANN Inc., the parent company of Ann Taylor and LOFT stores.

Lauren's mother said she and her husband have made a point to talk to their children about compassion, and she is thankful the lessons have gotten through.

"The thing that my husband and I are most appreciative of is the way that God has used this situation to teach our children that he will make a way out of no way when we are doing something that is in his will," she said. "They have watched this project grow and receive his favor in a very major way. This is the most valuable life lesson that we could ever ask for as they move toward adulthood and life on their own. Seeing God move in such a mighty and tangible way through this project has truly solidified his presence in their lives."

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