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Laguna Food Pantry welcomes high schooler with a history of volunteerism to its ranks

It's been quite a year for the Laguna Food Pantry. The nonprofit named its first director in May and is fresh off a fundraiser that generated more than $100,000.

Now, the pantry has its first honorary youth board member. Those connected with the group say the changes are all about improving its effectiveness in feeding the underprivileged.

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Samantha Berk, they say, brings a unique perspective as a soon-to-be senior at Laguna Beach High who has spent a year volunteering with the nonprofit, which collects and distributes 2,000 pounds of free groceries each weekday to people from area low-income households, at least half of which have babies and young children.

Her passion to serve seems indisputable.

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Elizabeth Haines, the pantry's board secretary, recommended Samantha as a youth member to board colleagues last spring after the teen had approached her about reviving a service club at the high school dedicated to assisting the pantry.

Samantha, 16, had a plan for recruiting volunteers and suggested tips for sorting and stocking goods at the pantry, said Haines.

Fifteen to 20 students donated their time at the pantry last year, Samantha said, and raised money through bake sales.

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"She has so much poise," Haines said. "When she says she is going to do something, she does it."

Pantry board President Korey Jorgensen said in a news release: "We're excited to have her energy, enthusiasm and willingness to help us in our task of providing free food to people who are struggling to make ends meet."

But the selection of Samantha for this first-ever role also speaks to the board's interest in nurturing youth and creating a connection with the younger generation.

Samantha "has been instrumental in creating a valuable bridge between the local public high school and the pantry," Jorgensen said.

Samantha, who participated in her first pantry board meeting last week after the nine members unanimously approved her for the role, does not have a formal vote, but she will participate in board discussions.

Her family's connection to the pantry began when her younger sister, Jessica, chose the site, at 20652 Laguna Canyon Road, for her volunteer efforts as part of a bat mitzvah project. Samantha and her mother, Amy, went along.

"We enjoyed it and started doing it regularly," Samantha said, adding that Amy instilled in her children the value of community service when the family, which includes Samantha's father, David, and younger brother, Matthew, lived in New Jersey.

The Berks moved from the Garden State to Laguna three years ago.

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Samantha spends three to four hours a week at the pantry, sorting and stocking packaged and fresh foods into bags for needy families.

"It's like a supermarket," Samantha said. "It's rewarding to see kids who are able ... to pick out foods they want."

Volunteers also deliver ready-made, packaged sandwiches for people staying at the nearby overnight homeless shelter, called the Alternative Sleeping Location.

Samantha would like to major in business with a possible minor in psychology. She said being a part of the pantry's board will provide valuable insight into an organization's handling of budgets and other financial matters.

When not at the pantry, Samantha participates in Laguna Beach High's Model United Nations program and with the nonprofit Soles4Souls, which collects worn but still usable shoes for people in need of footwear throughout the world.

"There is so much hard work going on at the pantry," Samantha said. "It's awesome to be a part of it."

In May, the board selected Justin Myers, a Laguna Beach resident and member of multiple organization boards, as its part-time director. Myers will coordinate communications, administration and fundraising.

Myers, an event planner and caterer, "knows about food handling and fundraising and is a savvy communicator," Jorgensen said at the time. "He is well-connected through his paid and volunteer work."

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Bryce Alderton, bryce.alderton@latimes.com

Twitter: @AldertonBryce

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