Teen gives back to community with volunteer work

Tina Bridenstine
The Shawnee News-Star
Claire Gentry recently celebrated her graduation with a dinner at Salvation Army, where she has volunteered since she was about 12.

When 17-year-old Claire Gentry graduated recently, she, like so many other graduates, decided to have a celebration. The celebration she had in mind, however, was anything but typical.

June 2, Gentry invited friends and family to join her serving dinner at the Salvation Army.

Gentry bought donuts from Tecumseh's Daylight Donuts and served hot dogs, macaroni salad, and potato salad. The Love's in Tecumseh donated candy, and Love's assistant manager provided bottled water and bags of chips.

In all, somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 people showed up.

Gentry said she decided to get donuts because that's something people who are very poor or homeless probably don't get very often.

“It was so fun watching them. They said, 'Ohhh, donuts!'” she said.

Gentry said those who are poor or homeless deserve the chance to party just like everyone else.

Local teen Claire Gentry celebrated her graduation by serving dinner and donuts at the Salvation Army.

“There's no reason to be scared of them,” she said. “They're kids. They're mothers. They're war veterans … You just talk to them and find out their stories.”

Gentry said she has volunteered at the Salvation Army since about 2015, when she was 12 years old.

However, that's not all she does.

A few years ago, Gentry created her own ministry, Operation Shawnee, aimed at providing Christmas gifts to struggling families in Pottawatomie County.

“It's something I'm always passionate about,” Gentry said. “I'm passionate about kids.”

She said each bag contains a large toy, a stocking stuffer toy, socks, hats, gloves, toothbrush and toothpaste, and candy, as well as a book or puzzle for the toddler bags.

She said each year she tries to make more bags than the year before. Last Christmas, she made 76. Next year, she's trying for 80.

For the most part, she said, all that comes out of her own pocket. She sometimes gets a box of toothbrushes from her grandmother, however. And Love's in Tecumseh donates candy for the bags.

“They get so excited about it,” she said.

She also said that the owner of The Toy Box antique shop in downtown Shawnee discovered the reason she was buying American Girl dolls and gave her the dolls, as well as new wigs to replace the hair on the dolls, for free. Gentry takes the used dolls and restores them: removing the hair, repainting, putting in new hair, and making sure the doll is in good condition. Depending on how busy she is with the job she works, she said it can take about a week to restore a doll to make it ready to give to a child in need.

Once the bags are ready to be donated, Gentry partners with Grace House, a ministry through Grace Church that helps poor and working poor families. Grace House helps Gentry find families to donate to and delivers the bags.

“All I ask from Grace House is just one story a year,” she said, adding that she doesn't expect thank you notes for what she does. “I prefer being backstage.”

Gentry also volunteers at Life Church, and sometimes helps her family put together sandwiches and takes them downtown to distribute food and water.

Volunteering is part of her life, she said, because she knows what it's like to be on the other side of things.

“That's one reason I'm so focused on the poor. I know what it's like,” she said. “We're back up on our feet, and now I want to help other kids.”

Homeschooled by her mother, Gentry said their family had only a single source of income, and they had hard times. She said she knows what it's like to be homeless, or to have to sell eggs to help the family get by, or to be sick of eating eggs because that's all there is.

“It was really scary and really hard,” she said. “Being there changes you.”

Gentry is the daughter of Alex and Erika Gentry of Tecumseh. She graduated from the Academy of Dance and Art on June 1.

She is also a member of the National Society of High School Scholars and the Honor Society, as well as a dancer and artist with artwork on display at The Arts @317 in downtown Shawnee.

She was also awarded a Gold Presidential Service Award signed by President Obama and a National American Miss Pageant Service Award. In addition, she published a piece in a pamphlet by the Arthritis Association about how to survive with arthritis – something she's become familiar with as someone with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.

Gentry has been attending Seminole State College and hopes to pursue a double major in psychology and art. She wants to go into art therapy, specializing in child PTSD and veteran PTSD, and helping children with newfound disabilities learn how to cope. She's looked at different colleges, but said she hasn't made any firm decisions where she wants to go or whether she'll stay in this area.

“My focus might change,” she said.

To find out about making donations to help with gift bags for Operation Shawnee, contact Gentry at flyingskirts@yahoo.com.