Sydney Gray will never forget her 11th birthday, because that’s the day the mail carrier had a special delivery for her. Seeing that the envelope was from Washington, D.C., made her a bit nervous and when she opened it up and saw the president’s signature, she almost had a heart attack. President Barack Obama had taken time from his crushing schedule to write Sydney a personal note thanking her for her volunteer work and congratulating her on her birthday.

Sydney’s parents, Richard and Donna, weren’t home, so she called her best friend Jessica. Sydney was bawling her eyes out as she read the president’s words: how he was impressed by her compassion and how admirable it was to celebrate a birthday by volunteering. Sydney’s next call was to her mom, who immediately identified the prime suspect behind the surprise.

For the past year, the Grays have been volunteering at the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry. Every Monday morning, they unload and sort groceries for three hours. Many of the adult volunteers dote on Sydney, but none more than Gale Zemel. Gale saw Sydney as embodying the spirit of volunteerism that President Obama so strongly supports.

Gale is not the type to ask favors, especially of a president who faces so many challenges. But Sydney was special enough for her to contact a friend in the White House. She never told the Grays about the request because she was afraid it might not come through. But, sure enough, Sydney came to the pantry on her birthday, bearing cupcakes and a framed letter from the president.

Sydney would not have been able to volunteer at the pantry if she hadn’t transferred from Field-Stevenson Elementary School to “Gray’s Academy.” That’s the formal name for the sixth grader’s home-schooling program. As part of her curriculum, Donna was looking for an activity the family could share and it turned out to be stocking groceries for the 200 families served by the pantry.

The Grays had already been involved in volunteer projects, such as a book drive for Katrina victims and making lunches for PADS. They were also strong supporters of Barack Obama’s bid for the presidency and attended the rally where he named his running mate. On election night, mother and daughter both shed tears of joy.

Not that Sydney’s much of a crier. Even when she’s working hard at the pantry, she’s got a smile on her face. So far, she’s enjoying home schooling. Learning outside the classroom as enabled her to tour the Smithsonian, watch a shuttle launch and observe her nephew’s first year of life. She plans to stay in Gray’s Academy through high school, concentrating on history and theater.

In the meantime, she has a letter to write to the president and a friend who just might be able to get it to him.