Wendy Klunk/ Daily Senior Staffer
For 14 year-old Evanston resident Olivia Ohlson, community service has always been a central part of life.
Conversations with other residents ground Ohlson’s work. She doesn’t focus on one cause in particular. Instead, she watches the news and jumps to fill any gap she sees, according to her mother Gini Ohlson. When COVID-19 hit, Ohlson noticed organizers setting up food pantries and clothing drives, but didn’t see anyone stepping up to distribute hygiene items like soap, shampoo, toothbrushes, razors. She knew what to do.
“It started at my house, with donations from friends, family and classmates, and income in cash,” Ohlson said. “Once we got enough cash donations, we made our first batch of kits and gave them away at Vineyard (Church), and then we slowly moved on to other nonprofits and other organizations.”
Wednesday evening, the city presented Ohlson with the “Future of Evanston Award.” The award was given out by the City, the Evanston Chamber of Commerce and Northwestern University as part of the annual MashUp event celebrating partnerships between the groups. Ohlson was one of three winners this year.
Ohlson partnered with Chicago non-profits, school districts and Evanston businesses to find drop-off locations for the kits. C&W Market, Connections for the Homeless and My Block, My Hood, My City, a Chicago nonprofit, were among Ohlson’s kit drop-off locations.
In the past, Ohlson has served with other community organizations in the Chicago area. One such organization was the Honeycomb Project, which focuses on family volunteer work and allowing young people to volunteer.
Once the pandemic started, Ohlson also became involved in digital outreach. On her Youtube channel, she read books and filmed math tutorials for students who could not access in-person classrooms during the pandemic. She also tutored local students in math as she read about students falling behind while out from school.
Ohlson hopes to join the Community Service Club and the Emerge Leadership Program. She aspires to be a medical doctor and biomedical engineer.
Gini Ohlson said she’ll encourage her daughter, who she said is “interested in almost everything,” to consider all of the possibilities a career path can hold.
“When she gets something on her mind, she goes after it, and I mean I think it started with like the lemonade stand, that was her first project…” Gini Ohlson said. “Even at 10 years old, (she) did 85% to 90% of the work. She just always has to keep her mind going. She always likes to help people.”
Earlier this year, singer-songwriter Jenn Hartmann Luck wrote a song in honor of Ohlson’s many acts of service. “Lemonade,” which Hartmann Luck released in September, will be one track on an upcoming album of songs about youth advocates. Minnesota-based author Stacy C. Bauer will also include Ohlson’s story in her series of childrens’ books about kids making a difference.
After her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017, then 10-year-old Ohlson started up a series of pink lemonade and cookie stands. She donated all of the proceeds to NorthShore Kellogg Cancer Center, where her mother received treatment.
Hartmann Luck said the way young people model the adults in their life and how they treat people is special. Ohlson and her mother together have created a pathway to giving back, she said.
“(It’s) this idea of taking lemons and turning them into lemonade kind of mentality,” Hartmann Luck said. “Olivia looks at our community and says, ‘Where can I help? Where is there need, and how can I step into it?’”
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