New Milford teen volunteer gives back to nonprofit

NEW MILFORD — Evan Carlson, of New Milford, is aware of the blessings he has that many others do not.

He said he knows friends and others community members whose families do not have the means to put food on their tables.

“I have some friends that don’t have as much as other people,” 17-year-old Evan said. “And there are people who go to Camella’s Cupboard to get food.”

Evan’s mother, Stephanie, is a teacher and has explained to her children that not all kids have breakfast and lunch. Some receive meals at school and through Camella’s Cupboard.

The teen, who attended New Milford High School for his freshman and sophomore years before transferring to Shepaug Valley School in Washington, said he recalled a story his mother shared about a parent that caught fish in the river and cooked it for dinner.

“That made me think about how far people in our community have to go to get food on their plates,” he said.

Camella’s Cupboard provides meals year-round for families through a summer lunch program, in-school food pantries and weekend and break bags. During the pandemic, the nonprofit organization has continued to supply food to families suffering from food insecurities.

Evan’s awareness of others’ needs and the programs in the community that provide necessary services prompted him to take action.

He began volunteering once a month at Camella’s Cupboard last November. Initially, the volunteer hours were used toward his required community service hours for graduation from Shepaug.

But as time went on, he said he felt more connected to the organization and continued volunteering because he enjoyed it.

When the coronavirus pandemic began in March, his volunteer hours increased. Now he volunteers every Friday to help prep the food so other volunteers can distribute it to the organization’s patrons.

“When COVID-19 hit and our distribution numbers quadrupled to nearly 400 each week,” said organization founder Angie Chastain, noting Evan recruited his father and brother, Brennan, 15, to help as well.

“They are there every Friday night, working tirelessly,” she said.

“I’ve been able to help out ... and be useful,” Evan said, noting he can lift heavier boxes and assist with tasks some of the other volunteers can’t do as easily.

“Community service has a grown a lot” in general, Evan said, recalling there were fewer volunteers helping when he first began volunteering last fall, but now there are many more.

“Awareness is key,” he said.

Evan didn’t stop at volunteering, though. To help spread the word about the role Camella’s Cupboard plays in the community, he coordinated an athletic shoe fundraiser through the Got Sneakers Foundation, which pays $1 for each pair of wearable shoes.

“This is an opportunity to put maximum effort into fundraiser, but he had to do it carefully,” Stephanie said, noting the fundraiser happened during the height of the pandemic.

In March and April, Evan collected gently used athletic shoes from family, friends and residents of the area after sharing his fundraiser on social media.

“I chose to do the shoe drive because it gets New Milford and other communities involved,” the three-sport athlete said. “Everyone has shoes to get rid of at some point.”

“We had wheelbarrows full of sneakers,” Stephanie said.

Evan collected about 200 pairs of sneakers that he then packaged and sent to the organization’s headquarters in Florida. The organization then issued a check for $200. But that wasn’t enough for Evan — he wanted to donate more.

He reached out to the Savings Bank of Danbury to ask if they could provide additional funding for his mission, and the bank matched what he had raised.

“I knew (the fundraiser) would help raise money,” Evan said. “The more money, that’s more food (Camella’s Cupboard) can get on people’s plates.”

Chastain said Camella’s Cupboard is grateful to Evan for his contributions.

“Camella’s Cupboard really appreciates the time and effort Evan gives to us. He is a wonderful help to us,” she said. “To have a young man with such initiative and compassion is amazing.”