Community activist Shrey Pothini saw his hard work transformed into
policy change at the Savage City Council meeting earlier this week.
The only bummer is that he still had to be in bed by 9 p.m.
Shrey is 8. For the past two years, he's held his birthday party for
free in the community room at Savage City Hall. In lieu of presents, he
asked guests to bring new towels for Avenues for Homeless Youth, a
Minneapolis homeless shelter he first visited as a toddler with his mom,
Seema, who sits on the board of directors.
Soon Shrey began to notice -- and despair of -- the inequities. "I
went into the Avenue rooms and they were pretty much empty," he said. "I
compared how much stuff I had with how much stuff they had. I had way
more, for sure."
He asked his mom what they could do. Seema looked at the list of needs: Soap, towels, body wash. Shrey chose towels.
In 2009, family members and friends celebrated Shrey's community-room
birthday with 44 towels. In 2010, they collected 118 towels. This year,
hoping to reach 200, Shrey faced a disappointing roadblock. In January,
the Savage City Council instituted a $75 user fee for all community
room events, with the exception of nonprofit organizations. Birthday
party? Pay up.
City administrator Barry Stock explained that the fee was necessary
to cover damage to the carpets and walls of the four-year-old facility
due to people bringing in food, coffee, pop, glue and paint.
"I didn't really get it," Shrey said of the new policy, "because I'm
doing a nonprofit party. I'm not even getting any presents."
Shrey told his mom that he could bring in a police officer from the
adjoining precinct to make sure nobody was getting any fun stuff. That
made her laugh.
Seema, a school diversity consultant, emphasizes that the $75 is
"quite minimal." For her son, this is a matter of principle. "Shrey
wants to make sure that the opportunity is available to others."
The second-grader decided to take on City Hall.
On Oct. 23, he pulled out his wide-lined notebook and, in neat,
straight printing, wrote a letter. "Dear Savage City Council," he began,
with only a few misspellings.
"When I was 3, I went to a homeless shelter in Minneapolis called
Avenuse for Homeles Youth and I saw that the people who lived there
diden't have so many things that they needed. I've had my birthday party
at the Savage City Hall community room for two years. We did it there
because I could use the room for free and could invite so many kids and
they would bring more towels.
"... It doesn't make sense to pay $75.00 because I could use that
money to buy 25 towels. I really hope that you can help our community by
changing the policy. Sincerely, Shrey G. Pothini, age 7."
Seema delivered her son's letter to City Hall and Shrey spoke before
the council on Nov. 7. "Savage is one of the best cities in Minnesota,"
he said wisely, leaning into the microphone. "If you change the policy,
then maybe other people will get inspired and maybe other cities and
states." The council agreed to take up the matter the following week.
In his non-activist life, Shrey's favorite subject is science, "where
we make observations." He takes karate lessons, loves the movie "How To
Train Your Dragon" and just took up the viola.
"I didn't want a violin," Shrey said. "That's way too common."
His eighth birthday party was held for free on Nov. 12 at IGM
Gymnastics in Burnsville, where he collected 84 bath towels and several
packs of washcloths and body wash. In addition, the Family Vision Clinic
in Savage, and Klein Bank branches in Savage, Burnsville, Lakeville and
Shakopee, will collect towels and body wash for Avenues until Nov. 19.
On Nov. 14, the start of Youth Appreciation Week in Savage, "Review
City Hall Meeting Room Policy" was the first order of business. Seema
and Shrey sat in the back, while Shrey's "super-proud" dad, Venu, and
little sister waited at the library.
Stock thanked Shrey for "beating us to the punch." Frankly, Stock
said, the user fee has been a big pain in the neck to administer.
Suddenly, everybody's claiming to be a nonprofit.
The council agreed to a new strategy for 2012: Everybody who wants to
use the community room, be they for-profit or non-profit, will be
charged a modest $25 for up to four hours. "We want to encourage use of
the room," Stock said on Tuesday, "but we do have to find some way to
cover maintenance. It's good for Shrey to realize that, sometimes,
things aren't so simple. But the guy is so eloquent. Wow."
Seema thinks the change is "a nice compromise." Shrey? "I'm pretty
mad about it," he said after leaving the chambers, "because they're
going to get more money than they need."
He thinks it's unjust to charge nonprofits even a penny. But he'll
give the policy a year. Then, good members of the Savage City Council,
"I'm not going to stop doing this," Shrey said. "I'm going to force them to change that policy."
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