In 2008, Daniel Sobajian listened to President Barack Obama’s inaugural speech and liked what he heard.
“He said go out and help your community and make a difference,” recalled Sobajian, then an eighth-grader at the Sinai Akiba Academy in Los Angeles. “I realized just how privileged I was.”
Soon after, Sobajian sought out William “Bill” Rosendahl, his city councilman in Mar Vista, and formed a youth council with 25 other teens. A brainstorming session led to the formation of Students Do (www.studentsdo.org), a nonprofit that runs drives for much-needed school supplies like notebooks, backpacks, pencils, pens and calculators.
In the four years since Students Do launched, the organization has collected $25,000 worth of school supplies and distributed them to 2,500 Los Angeles schoolchildren, according to Sobajian. In addition, the teen volunteers visited the schools where the supplies were delivered and read to the children, made bookmarks and helped students with their homework.
“We could see how [the children] were using the supplies and the impact that we were having,” he said. “It’s great to have a teacher, but how can you learn without school supplies?”
For his work with Students Do, Sobajian was awarded a Diller Tikkun Olam Award in 2011. (To learn more about the $36,000 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, visit http://www.dillerteenawards.org)
The 19-year-old has started his sophomore year in a joint program at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He spent the summer interning in the district office of longtime Harlem congressman Charles Rangel.
“It was a great opportunity to really learn from a living legend,” Sobajian said.
Back in California, his sister Lisa, 16, a high school junior, is overseeing the school supplies drives and distribution activities of Students Do. But Sobajian says he is still very much involved in the organization, speaking to his contacts and serving as an adviser.
Between classes, Sobajian spoke to JTA about the impact of his Jewish identity, his biggest influences and what he’d like to ask the man who still serves as his inspiration.
JTA: How has your Jewish identity had an impact on your service project?
Daniel Sobajian: My Jewish identity had an impact because my Jewish day school really instilled in me a sense of community and a sense of helping another person in need.
JTA: Who or what have been the biggest influences in your life?
D.S.: My family, my parents, my sister and council member Rosendahl, because he got me involved in city politics and showed me that even a little eighth-grader was able to make a difference in my community.
JTA: What do you think you want to be doing when ”you grow up” or think you’d like to be doing professionally in perhaps five or 10 years?
D.S.: I want to make a difference in my community. I want to represent my community. Whether in elected office, I don’t know, but I want to make a difference.
JTA: Have you decided on a major yet?
D.S.: I’m still undecided but I’m anticipating history or political science at Columbia and either modern Jewish studies or history at JTS.
JTA: If you could have lunch with anyone and tell him or her about your service project, who would it be?
D.S.: President Obama because he inspired me. I also consider myself a community organizer and I’d want to ask him about his specific experiences, and about the challenges of uniting a community he didn’t really know.
JTA: What kind of things do you like to do for fun?
D.S.: I like watching sports, reading, going to the beach and exploring New York City.