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Since Memphis Roetter was 5, he’s understood the importance of giving.
On his fifth birthday, instead of gifts he asked his guests to donate cans of food or money to the Redwood Empire Food Bank, the largest food bank in the North Bay.
That year, Memphis provided more than 700 meals to people in need in Sonoma County. It was the start of a tradition for him, one he’s carried on into his teenage years.
Ever since, for every birthday, Memphis has spent the weekend before his big day collecting donations outside grocery stores. He’s pulled a wooden wagon into neighborhoods and knocked on people’s doors to collect contributions until the wagon has teetered with tall stacks of canned food for the food bank.
When he turned 6, he donated 5,335 meals. At age 7, it was 8,300 meals. And for his eighth birthday and beyond, his annual donations have reached almost 10,000 meals.
Memphis, now 17, has raised nearly $60,000 and collected nearly 225,000 pounds of food for people in need in Sonoma County.
“Everyone should have access to food, but sadly not everyone has access to this necessity,” Memphis said. “It’s hard for so many people right now. That’s why it’s important to help wherever you can.”
Starting when Memphis was young, his parents Juli and Chuck Roetter offered their son the choice of having a standard birthday celebration or doing charity work. He always chose the route of helping others.
“At a young age, it was my parents who inspired me to use my birthday as a means to raise money,” Memphis said. “As I grew up, I realized I was helping other people and that I had a bigger purpose.”
These days, the Cardinal Newman High School student holds food drives in front of Oliver’s Market on Stony Point Road in Santa Rosa every weekend from January to March, filling barrels to the brim with food for Redwood Empire Food Bank.
A global pandemic that forced the community to isolate didn’t even stop this veteran fund raiser from thinking outside the box and finding a way to help others in need.
In 2021, due to COVID-19, Memphis couldn’t set up a table at grocery stores to collect donations like he had in the past. So instead, he reached out to the community through Instagram, Facebook and Nextdoor about his food drive. He created a website for people to donate to a Virtual Food & Funds Drive and a birthday food drive on GoFundMe supporting the Redwood Empire Food Bank.
For his generosity, Memphis has been selected to receive the North Bay Spirit Award for May. A joint project of The Press Democrat and Comcast, the award highlights volunteers who demonstrate exceptional initiative for a cause, often identifying a need in the community and finding an enterprising way to fill it.
Nine years ago, The Press Democrat wrote about Memphis when he was only 7. When asked why he collected food and funds, he simply replied, “To help local people.”
“It’s expensive to live in Sonoma County, inflation has gotten out of control,” said mom Juli Roetter. “What he does has a big impact and is meaningful. He’s inspired people. He’s a feel-good kid.”
When Memphis was 10, Emeryville-based Clif Bar & Co. reached out to him on Facebook asking to donate their energy snack bars to his food drive. This sparked consistent donations of thousands of pounds of Clif bars from the company for his birthday drive each year, accompanied by a birthday note for Memphis.
In the early years of his food drive, a young Memphis, with long blond hair parted in the middle, would pull his wooden wagon from door to door and hand out flyers to spread the word about his effort.
With the pandemic, he recently returned to his neighborhood canvassing, this time with a car instead of a wagon. Last year, unable to put out collection tables at local grocery stores, he did porch pickups. Memphis drove around Santa Rosa and collected food from nearly 80 porches after putting out the word on social media that he would continue the food drive during the pandemic.
He picked up four barrels’ worth of nonperishable food for the food bank. A community member on Nextdoor even donated $1,000, he said.
“Among the hundreds of kids that hold food drives for us, Memphis stands out. He’s been around for a while,” said Lisa Cannon, the food bank’s director of development. “The Roetters are a long-standing volunteer family in our community, and they do good work year after year.”
Memphis lends a hand wherever he can. In February, he collaborated with Santa Rosa United, a youth soccer club that he’s been a part of since he was 8, and Saver Sports, a nonprofit led by his friend Jayhyun Suh, a senior at Sonoma Academy. Saver Sports gathers and donates sports equipment to young athletes in need.
Jayhyun and Memphis invited parents to sign up their kids for a one-day soccer camp at Trione Fields in Santa Rosa. They raised $1,000 for Saver Sports and the food bank.
“I enjoy doing this work” Memphis said. “It makes me feel like a selfless person to make someone else’s life better. I hope to continue it.”
Strong moral compass
The Roetters wanted to instill in their son the idea of giving back to the community. And a birthday seemed like a good opportunity to give rather than to receive.
“We wanted to raise him with a good foundation and be aware that there are people struggling around us and we can help by getting out there and giving back,” mom Juli Roetter said.
In November 2021, Memphis received a City of Santa Rosa Merit Award for his dedication to charity work.
Memphis said next year he’ll begin his food drive earlier for his senior service project at Cardinal Newman High School. It’ll be his last year doing his food drive, because he’ll be moving on to college.
Though he’s taking a break, he hopes to one day combine philanthropy with his love for soccer.
“I’d love to do something with soccer, maybe partner up with a food distributor, run a soccer camp and provide lunches,” Memphis said.
“You don’t need to have a lot to give a little,” his mom said. “We’re very proud of him.”