Seventeen-year-old Sienna Santer said that while growing up in Arroyo Grande, she was constantly exposed to the importance of food and agriculture.
“So much of Arroyo Grande is based on produce and harvest,” she said. “That whole sense of using food and the idea of ‘plenty’ to connect with others really inspired me to volunteer. Plus, seeing all the vineyards — the entire landscape is based off food.”
That awareness led Santer to receive a Congressional Gold Medal for her work with the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County. Her independent sports and artistic pursuits also played a part in the award.
Santer was one of two county teens to qualify for the Gold Medal — the highest honor an American youth can receive — in 2016. (Atascadero resident Madison DeBruin was the other recipient.)
To be recognized, a teen must log 400 hours of voluntary community service, plus 400 hours of personal development and physical fitness activities, and plan and execute a four-night “exploration/expedition” trip related to their goals. The work must take place over a two-year span.
“I’m all about independent learning, and not being confined by what a school wants to teach,” said Santer, who takes classes through Stanford Online High School and Cuesta College. “The congressional award was about setting my own goals and meeting them for me, not for anyone else.”
She set out to volunteer with the Food Bank Coalition, specifically Glean SLO, a program that encourages farmers and residents to donate their extra produce so it can be distributed among the county’s hungry.
Santer spearheaded a sign campaign to promote awareness among farmers, residents and even schools. About 200 signs have been distributed across the county, she said.
“It starts a dialogue with neighbors,” she said. “And it spreads the message.”
Santer attended many of the “gleanings” — when coalition volunteers pick the donated produce — across South County and up to Cayucos, though they picked the most from Talley Farms in the Arroyo Grande Valley, she said.
Santer is now considering what she wants to do in the future — probably some marriage of environmental issues and writing, she said — but she knows Arroyo Grande will always be home.
“No matter where I go, a piece of me will always feel like this is home,” she said. “So much of me is invested in the area, and so many parts of my personality come from different aspects of the community.”
• Arroyo Grande Community Hospital
• Lucia Mar Unified School District
• Other retailers
• Summer Concert Series, June-September, 2016
• Harvest Festival and Parade, Sept. 23-24, 2016
• Christmas Concert and Parade, Nov. 27, 2016
• Strawberry Festival, Memorial Day Weekend, 2017