Los Altos teen wins Diller award for work on Darfur

Allison Hoffman’s cell phone is programmed with all the usual suspects: Mom, Dad, brother, boyfriend, best friend, the White House.

The White House?

“I probably call about once every two weeks, and sometimes I don’t get through, but sometimes I’ll tell the secretary that I think the Bush administration should do more in Darfur,” Hoffman said.

The frequent phone calls are just a fraction of what Hoffman, 17, has done and will continue to do to raise money for Darfur refugees and awareness about how they became refugees in the first place.

“To believe so strongly in humanity and to have it fail you in this way is disappointing but not an excuse for inaction,” Hoffman said. “We’re still able to help and support one another.”

Hoffman’s exuberance and determination earned her one of five inaugural awards from the Helen Diller Family Foundation this year. The Diller Tikkun Olam awards gave each teen $36,000. About 75 teens applied for the award, which was open to Jewish teens in California between the ages of 13 and 19.

Hoffman won for her efforts to educate her peers about genocide in Darfur.

First, the Los Altos teen and senior at the private, all-girls Castilleja High School in Palo Alto, started an anti-genocide group at her school.

“To know that everyone at my school is informed of what’s going on in Darfur is something I’m pretty proud of,” she said.

But focusing only on her fellow students felt insufficient. So Hoffman contacted teens at two neighboring schools and suggested they start a regional coalition. Her energy and creativity inspired the start-up of the Youth Alliance for Darfur (YADA). The organization is led by six teens from three high schools who plan events designed for teens from Mountain View to Portola Valley.

More than 350 teens attended the group’s first event, in January. They organized a Songs for Sudan concert, which featured six high school bands and raised $6,000 for the Genocide Intervention Network.

Their second event, in the spring, was more focused on raising awareness, and so they held a vigil and music jam session in downtown Palo Alto. Passers-by were invited to write a peaceful message on a marker board, then have their picture taken. The resulting 100 images will soon be sent to the White House and the governor’s mansion, “to show the government that a lot of people stand behind this message,” she said.

Hoffman is startlingly self-aware. She has an earnest face, an easy smile and almond-shaped eyes that reveal her ethnic background (her father is Caucasian, her mother is Asian). She talks about how that’s shaped her identity — Jewish and otherwise — with an air of maturity and grace uncommon in people of any age.

“Teens have this image of themselves that they can’t do anything, that they’re supposed to just go to school and that’s it, and they’ve started to believe that,” she said. “But I think through our efforts we’ve shown people that teens can do so much.”

Hoffman leads by example on that front. She’s active in Congregation Beth Am’s youth group, plays on her school’s softball team, competes on its robotics team, edits the yearbook and participates in the Diller Teen Fellowship.

“She’s passionate about everything she does,” said Adam Herzog, 17, an old friend and Diller fellow. “Every issue that’s thrown her way, she somehow tries to do something to make the problem better. She showed up to her Diller interview with a shirt made by Afghan women so she could support their work.”

As for the $36,000, Hoffman said it would be used for college (she’s hoping to go to Barnard College in New York) and for future YADA events, which in turn will generate more fundraising and awareness.

“After all the work we’ve done, I think it would be weird to simply write a check to, say, the Genocide Intervention Network,” Hoffman said. “But this way, we can plan events in which 100 percent of people’s donations will go to our cause, and in the end, that will add up to an even bigger profit.”

The Helen Diller Family Foundation is a supporting foundation of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. Giving teenagers such a big sum was controversial, said Endowment staff, but ultimately, the $36,000 amount was chosen to emphasize the importance of the teens’ work, and encourage more youth to think about tikkun olam.

“Helen Diller and her family recognize that one individual can make a difference and that investing in young people at an early age can have powerful long-range implications,” said Phyllis Cook, director of the JCEF. She predicts the awards will extend to teens in other states in the future.

Hoffman is the only Bay Area recipient; others are Amanda Haworth of La Jolla, Justin Sachs of Carlsbad, Shira Shane of Encino and Erich Sorger of Beverly Hills.

The award ceremony is Tuesday, Aug. 28 in San Francisco.

“What better way to leave a legacy than to leave an impact on Jewish youth, our future leaders?” said philanthropist Helen Diller in a prepared statement. “It is never too late, too early or too often to demonstrate the spirit of tikkun olam.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.