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The City Journals

Cottonwood Heights business owner leads drive to feed homeless teens

May 08, 2018 03:28PM ● By Josh Wood

East High students help Lani Roberts deliver food donations for the school’s homeless youth. (Joshua Wood/City Journals)

By Joshua Wood | [email protected]

Did you know that there are dozens of high school students in the Salt Lake Valley who are homeless? This fact came as a shock to one Cottonwood Heights business owner, and the thought has stayed with her for years. And she has spent years doing her best to help.

When we see or hear about a problem in our community, we tend to wonder what can be done about it, and who is doing it. For Cottonwood Heights business owner Lani Roberts, there was just one option — she wanted to do something about it herself. So she marshalled one terrific resource available to her —  her business. As the owner of the 7-11 store on Fort Union Boulevard at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon, Lani did something simple that has grown into something special. She put a small sign and collection canister on the counter near the cash registers. Her customers have been chipping in for years now, and that allows Roberts to provide tangible help to homeless youth in the Salt Lake Valley.

The loose change and bills that Roberts’ customers contribute have added up to hundreds of dollars each year. This March, she had enough to go shopping for food for the homeless students of Salt Lake City’s East High School. Taking advantage of a sale at the Macey’s store in nearby Sandy, Roberts purchased over $700 worth of nonperishable food.

“I wanted to do something for a food pantry in the area but didn’t know how to find one,” Roberts said. “So I googled it, and East High came up. They have around 80 homeless students, so they have a food pantry and a hygiene pantry. They do clothes, too, and they have showers so the kids can shower there. That just got my heart, so I bring food there.”

Over the past 10 years, Roberts has made her charitable work an ongoing drive through her business. By taking the lead and providing a clear way to help people in the community, she also gives hundreds of people the opportunity to help out, simply by chipping in a little spare change. With the money donated by her customers, she does two food drives and a coat drive each year. 

Roberts supported multiple charities in the past, but they were large national organizations.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to do it local, man,’” Roberts said as she placed another tray of canned vegetables onto a stack so tall it nearly hid her from view. Spaghetti, peas, corn, beans and more filled to capacity two carts normally used by the grocery store staff to stock shelves.

“My customers are from all over the valley and even out of the country. They put in their change. Sometimes I find a $20 bill or a $10 bill because each time I do a new fundraiser, I put a picture on the collection canister, and I tell them how much money I spent and where I took it along with pictures of me delivering the food with some students. So the customers see where it’s going.”

Roberts’ take-charge personality and warm demeanor make it easy for her to enlist help from other well-meaning community members. Her neighbor, Paula Johnson, met Roberts at the store to help transport the food to East High. By the time they were ready to roll, their two cars were fully loaded, trunk, back seat, passenger seat and all.

“She’s very giving, an awesome lady,” Johnson said. “She’s been really good to me. And at Christmas time she does the mittens, the hats, the gloves, the socks. It’s awesome. She lets her customers know exactly where the money goes. She thanks everybody.”

At East High School, a grateful and somewhat stunned staff thanks Roberts for her generosity. With the help of four students, the cans of food are loaded onto carts and taken to the elevator inside and down to the food pantry where help is offered to the school’s homeless students. There, right in the midst of typical teenage hustle and bustle, as kids head to class and talk with friends, a handful of students take food to a pantry set aside in the school’s basement for their homeless classmates. Nearby are showers and a toiletry pantry. A large closet of donated clothes is just down the hall. The school gives homeless students some of the food and facilities they need to get by. Community members like Roberts and her countless supporters help make it possible.

“I accumulate the money and am collecting more until next time,” Roberts said.