Sage Hill School students are all about the Give Back

Sage Hill School sophomores Ingrid Luo, left, and Eleni Engelbrecht.
Sage Hill School sophomores Ingrid Luo, left, and Eleni Engelbrecht started the Give Back group on campus when the pandemic started, raising money and donating masks to hospitals and senior centers in Southern California. They have since partnered with nonprofit Bracken’s Kitchen for a food drive, collecting ingredients in October and November.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Ingrid Luo and Eleni Engelbrecht have each been Girl Scouts for a number of years, so service projects are right up the alley of the Sage Hill School sophomores.

During the coronavirus pandemic, they’ve discovered plenty of ways to help out.

Ingrid, a 15-year-old Irvine resident, gathered a group of about 10 friends from Sage Hill when the pandemic started and began raising money and donating masks. By the end of June, the “Mask-a-Teers,” as they called themselves, had raised more than $6,000 and donated 13,155 masks to 19 hospitals, senior centers, hospices and schools around Southern California.

They didn’t stop there.

“We wanted to continue,” Ingrid said. “The more you do it, the more you want to do.”

Ingrid and Eleni, a 15-year-old who lives in Aliso Viejo, helped form a partnership with Orange County nonprofit Bracken’s Kitchen, which specializes in food recovery and makes and delivers meals to low-income and underserved people in the community. That came after they heard Bracken’s Kitchen director of operations Caterina Richards give a speech as part of the school’s service learning program.

The Mask-a-Teers branched out and became the Give Back group, running a two-month food drive in October and November. Donations were made on the Sage Hill campus and in local neighborhoods. Bracken’s Kitchen gave the teenagers five recipes, which they stapled on grocery bags for easy donation.

The students split into groups of four or five people each to coordinate the effort, also putting collection bins on the Sage Hill campus and sending a mass email to Lightning students encouraging them to donate.

In the end, the Give Back group donated 300 pounds of pasta, 31 gallons of chicken broth and 20 gallons of olive oil to Bracken’s Kitchen in December. The other items included 40 pounds of salt and pepper, 24 pounds of granulated garlic and 95 pounds of other ingredients.

“I was really surprised,” Eleni said. “Every single neighbor that I gave [an empty bag] to, they all put in something and were really eager to donate to our cause. Their generosity was just amazing. Everybody’s in the crisis, right? Everybody knows how it feels to be struggling. But it kind of empowers people, to feel like they do something to make the situation better, rather than just stand on the sidelines and watch people suffer.”

Sage Hill School members of the Give Back group on campus have partnered with nonprofit Bracken's Kitchen for a food drive.
Sage Hill School students and members of the Give Back group on campus are raising money and donating masks to hospitals and senior centers in Southern California. They partnered with nonprofit Bracken’s Kitchen for a food drive.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Richards said the Sage Hill students brought in enough food to make about 2,500 meals, an impressive amount that was perfect for the large-scale world in which the food kitchen deals.

Richards said that during the pandemic Bracken’s Kitchen has been making about 8,000 meals a day, which is way up from the pre-COVID totals of 8,000 meals a week.

“We used to take our food truck out and do feedings,” she said. “We were thinking maybe the students could come out and do a feeding with us, going to the shelters or the low-income family housing, senior apartment-type areas where we do feeding. But COVID hit, so we weren’t able to do anything because of the social distancing. We were thinking about something different for them to do, staying engaged, so I came up with the food drive idea.”

She said she was pleasantly surprised with the product that the Give Back group brought in to the Bracken’s Kitchen headquarters in Garden Grove.

“It was perfect timing for the holidays,” Richards said.

Activities like going out with the food truck or helping the Bracken’s Kitchen team prepare meals could be possibilities in the post-pandemic future for Give Back. Ingrid said she wants to make the food drive partnership with Bracken’s Kitchen an annual occurrence.

Mindy Aguirre, Sage Hill’s assistant director for inclusion and outreach who is also the Give Back club advisor, is used to that kind of initiative.

“Through our four-year service learning program, we hope to inspire our students to identify an issue and give them the tools to develop a plan to address it,” Aguirre wrote in an email. “Usually students work on this type of project during their junior and senior years, but Ingrid and Eleni (and many of the other Give Back club members) have been seeking out these types of service opportunities since their freshman year, doing whatever they can to address the issues they are most passionate about. So while I was not ‘surprised’ by their success, these students continue to impress and inspire me.”

Ingrid said the Give Back group is partnering with El Sol Academy, a Santa Ana-based dual immersion charter school, for an online tutoring program. She said the group, which has nearly quadrupled in size to more than 35 students, has been finding all sorts of different projects to do to help the community. Other efforts have included writing cards to senior citizens.

“It makes us happy to see that what we’re doing has an impact on the communities around us,” Ingrid said. “Even in the smallest way, it’s still helping society … When you’re doing it, it feels nice. When you see the end result, it feels even better.”

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