Some teens travel the road of peer pressure and risky pastimes, but Mikayla Schowalter, 15, is taking another route.

A member of St. Peter of Alcantara Church, and a Port Washington High School freshman, Mikayla recently reached her goal of raising $60,000 to install a cargo lift at the Food Pantry, Inc. The nonprofit organization, serving Ozaukee County families, is housed in the basement of St. Peter’s rectory.

Parental lead by example

Mikayla’s parents, Mark and Cathy Schowalter, who have been married nearly 35 years, are avid parish and community volunteers and for decades brought Mikayla and her brother, Jacob, a freshman at UW-Madison, along as they volunteered.

“I was always dragged along to all the meetings,” Mikayla said with a smile, while her mother, Cathy, a homemaker, agreed.

Cathy’s and Mark’s parents set the bar high by being generous in helping others, Cathy said.

“We learned from them … we’re hoping our children learn from us,” she said.

Mark, a banker, also wants his daughter to learn by example.

“Hopefully, Mikayla gets the idea that it’s good to help others.” he said. “I’d like to think that example has some kind of effect on her.”

Since Mikayla was a child, she has helped out at the pantry in her own way. As a first communicant, she asked that family and friends refrain from giving her gifts. Instead, she requested they make food or cash donations to the Food Pantry.

During her elementary years at Port Catholic School in Port Washington, Mikayla continued to help at the pantry, as a volunteer in the facility and through food drives.

Her strong Catholic faith fuels her actions, she said.

“My faith tells me to help those in need,” Mikayla said. “Faith is put into practice through all the good work that the Food Pantry does.”

Over the years, Mikayla noticed volunteers at the pantry carrying heavy loads. Fifty pounds of potatoes, chickens, onions – all being carried down a narrow flight of stairs to the basement, she said. Then items for recycling would have to be brought back up the steps.

As the volunteers aged, it was increasingly difficult to carry supplies. Mikayla thought some type of lift would help workers avoid heaving hefty loads.

The Food Pantry administrator and longtime friend of the family, Joy Dreier, had longed for a cargo lift and was overjoyed to hear of Mikayla’s plans.

Going for ‘Gold’

An opportunity to fulfill Mikayla’s desire for a supply lift presented itself in a natural way.

A Girl Scout since preschool, now a senior member of Troop 8382, she yearned to earn her Gold Award, the highest honor a Girl Scout can achieve. The prestigious award requires a minimum of 80 work hours on a project that solves a community problem.

A lift for the Food Pantry became an obvious project for her Gold Award.

The subsequent details, however, were not so clear.

Mikayla Schowalter

Age: 15
Parish: St. Peter of Alcantara Parish, Port Washington
Occupation: Student
Favorite Hobby: Sports, especially basketball
Favorite church hymn: "On Eagles Wings"
Favorite song: “Wanted" by Hunter Hayes
Favorite quotation: "Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much" Helen Keller

More than a year ago, Mikayla began researching types of lifts to determine the best fit for the pantry. She then worked with a general contractor, architect and other professionals to create a plan for installation. To gain approval from the parish and Food Pantry board of directors, she had to prepare a proposal.

She sent out more than 2,000 brochures, wrote grants and spoke to churches, businesses and civic groups to raise funds. Family members and friends provided assistance, too.

“I had the idea but I couldn’t make it possible without the help of others,” Mikayla said.

Dreier accompanied Mikayla to meetings and served as Mikayla’s project advisor. During presentations, Mikayla would outline the lift plans, but it was Dreier who made the official pleas for donations as Girl Scout policy dictates that requests for money cannot be made by the scout.

“But they can sell you cookies,” Mark said, as the family chuckled in unison.

Challenges along the way

Occasionally, Mikayla had curveballs thrown at her.

“One guy asked her about the electrical service,” Mark said, while Mikayla and her mother burst out laughing at the memory.

“Some guy asked me if the food pantry had the right voltage for it and what the phase was for my lift, and I knew it off the top of my head,” Mikayla said, explaining she had thoroughly read the electrical plans. “So I could answer it right away.”

Her parents were stunned to learn she knew the correct answer and that she had the presence of mind to explain it to a room of inquiring adults.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘Where did that come from?’” Cathy said. “Later she told us, ‘Well, I read my material.’ It was unbelievable how she was talking about voltage and amps” and explaining complicated electrical detail, she said. “We laughed so hard.”

Mark credited his daughter’s Catholic schooling for building her confidence. Mikayla gained experience being in front of groups by reading and singing at school Masses, he explained.

Donations pour in

If confidence in her project’s ability to succeed was initially uncertain, Mikayla did not have to wait long to see extraordinary results. In four months’ time, she reached her $60,000 goal.

Donations came in more than 400 separate contributions. An average of seven checks arrived daily. Once she received 22 envelopes.

The thrill of witnessing such generosity affected mother and daughter alike.

“I had a hard time waiting until Mikayla got home from school” to take a look inside the envelopes, Cathy said.

Grateful for each donation, Mikayla and her helpers hand-delivered as many thank-you cards as they could.

A special birthday gift

Mikayla received a significant gift on her April 4 birthday. The custom-made cargo lift was delivered to the contractor that day, with the complete installation projected for early May.

As the family wrapped up their story of Mikayla’s year-long journey seeing her dream come to fruition, the Schowalters became quiet as they looked at each other.

In a hushed tone, Mark admitted, “We’re kind of glad it’s over. We were there to push her a little bit, give her advice, help her get a few things done.”

Both parents sat silently for a few moments, gazing reflectively at Mikayla, their faces revealing pride in their daughter.

Similar feelings were echoed by Dreier, who also has known Mikayla since the scout was a baby.

“I know a lot of young people who are wonderful but I don’t think that we have many young people that have Mikayla’s insight and determination to make that difference,” Dreier said. “We all need to sit back and just appreciate this moment because I don’t know when we will see this again.”