Highland Park, Community

Behind project that’s served 400+ families, Highland Park teen earns award from governor’s office

The Highland Park City Council presented Jagger Barnes, a rising senior at Highland Park High School, with the Illinois Governor’s Volunteer Service Award on June 12.

The award, administered annually by the Serve Illinois Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service, seeks to “recognize individual volunteers through a statewide award program to highlight the importance of volunteerism and community service,” according to the Commission’s website. This past year, the commission awarded 20 Illinois residents across five regions.

Barnes, one of six recipients in the Northwest region and the only awardee from Lake County, was celebrated for her founding role in and ongoing commitment to Shop N’ Drop — a student-driven initiative providing groceries and essentials to food-insecure families in Highland Park and Highwood.

In April 2020, Barnes, then only in eighth grade, worked with fellow Highland Park students Lauren Levey and Charlotte Harrington to spearhead the project, which was originally conceived as a temporary COVID-19 relief measure for families in need.

Barnes said that the Day of Giving an annual day of service and fundraising in Highland Park schools to support local families in advance of the holidays — was a key source of inspiration for her. 

“We had been supporting these families through the holiday season,” Barnes said, “but who was going to help them through the pandemic?”

Barnes after accepting her award on June 26 during a Highland Park City Council meeting.

Enter Shop N’ Drop.

Even while grappling with the swift shutdown of their own schools and the social isolation that accompanied the early days of COVID-19, Barnes, Levey and Harrington worked with mentors at Highland Park-based nonprofit Service and Learning Together, better knowns as SaLT, to set up an emergency food pantry and delivery service for needy households.

“During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jagger [Barnes] quickly recognized that many families in our community suffered from food insecurity,” Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering said during the June 12 meeting. “She immediately mobilized her friends, family and service network to create a grassroots food pantry.”

Families could either have Shop N’ Drop groceries and paper goods dropped off at their residences through a no-contact delivery service or pick the products up themselves at a meeting spot on Saturday mornings.

“We started out working with 25 different families,” Barnes recalled of Shop N’ Drop’s early days. “I remember we were thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, so many families!’”

Through additional outreach and, largely, word of mouth, however, Shop N’ Drop’s reach continued to grow. Within its first five months, the project amassed nearly 200 volunteers and delivered more than 3,600 bags of groceries to 110 families.

My name is the name on the plaque, but in reality, there are so many people who do so much. I want people to understand that there are so many other people making this happen.”
Jagger Barnes, about winning a service award for her work with Shop N’ Drop

But Barnes and her team didn’t stop there. Shop N’ Drop began partnering with grocery stores and local restaurants to meet growing demand. Jewel Osco often donates their unpurchased bakery goods to the project, Barnes said, and Once Upon a Bagel contributes end-of-day bagels.

“Highland Park is a very generous community,” she said.

In total, over the past three years, Shop N’ Drop has worked with more than 400 families in the Highland Park and Highwood communities, providing more than 25,000 bags of groceries.

Barnes, who was nominated for the award by her mentors at SaLT, found out she had received the Governor’s Volunteer Service Award last September. While she acknowledged she is “grateful for the recognition,” Barnes’ approach to her achievement is one of humility, and she is quick to highlight the contributions of others’ at the expense of her own.

“My name is the name on the plaque, but in reality, there are so many people who do so much,” she said. “I want people to understand that there are so many other people making this happen.”

Each year, the Serve Illinois Commission invites recipients of the Governor’s Volunteer Service Award to celebrate their achievements at a ceremony and banquet in Springfield. As Barnes was unable to attend this year’s festivities due to her end-of-year exams, the commission brought the celebration to her, asking Rotering and the Highland Park City Council to present the award on their behalf.

“It is a pleasure to celebrate Jagger’s achievements,” Rotering said. “Highland Park is a better place because of Jagger Barnes.”

Barnes, for one, was grateful to get to celebrate in Highland Park. 

“It was a really cool experience, and particularly special to receive (the award) in my own community,” she said.

Barnes (second from left) said numerous volunteers have helped Shop N Drop make it to three years.

Barnes won her award in the COVID-19 category, conceived to shine light on projects of particular import during the pandemic. She cautioned to remember that, while for many of us day-to-day conditions have returned to something resembling normalcy, some families are still feeling the consequences of the pandemic in very tangible ways.

“Just because things feel normal for us doesn’t mean there aren’t still lasting effects,” she said. “Unemployment rates, jobs, inflation, those things still aren’t back to normal.”

Barnes did clarify, however, that Shop N’ Drop’s focus has shifted along with changing public health conditions.

“We like to say that we started in COVID relief and have moved on to recovery,” Barnes said — a process that is, for her, all about building lasting relationships with the families they serve.

“We do weekly phone calls with our families to better understand what they need,” she explained. “Shop N’ Drop isn’t just about the food and the items, but a support system for families to lean on when they’re going through a tough time.”

Now, Barnes is thinking about what’s next — both for her and for Shop N’ Drop. This fall, college applications are on her mind, and, after spending 17 years in Highland Park, she’s hoping to head somewhere “with warmer weather”.

“I’m particularly interested in schools with a heavy service-learning focus. Service-learning has been such a big part of my life,” she said.

And as for Shop N’ Drop, Barnes is confident she’ll be leaving it in good hands.

“Now, we have a whole team of interns, volunteers, and student leaders,” she gushed. “We’re like a big family.”

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Luke Tyson

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