Seven teenagers with big dreams met for the first time in September to talk about the many ways they wanted to save the world and feed the hungry, among other issues.
Sydney Bennet, 16, was so excited to plan an event that would raise money for the nonprofit Free the Children that she lost sight of some small but pretty important details.
Thankfully, she had someone who could reel her in: Shaina Wasserman, an educator at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. The two were paired as part of the Jewish Teen Mentor Project, a Bay Area initiative of BBYO Central Region West. The project couples teenagers with Jewish communal leaders who offer support while teens plan a community service project of their choosing.
“It was definitely extremely helpful to have a mentor I could run all my ideas by,” said Bennet, a junior at Gunn High School in Palo Alto. “Some of my ideas were a little crazy … and I wasn’t always thinking about the logistics because I was so passionate about my cause. But my mentor could pull in that realistic aspect.”
Bennet organized an all-night fundraiser for Free the Children. Forty of her peers came; each raised at least $50 as the price of admission. They stayed up until sunrise, playing games and learning about the developing world. Then they mustered the energy to complete a walkathon. Thanks to a matching donation, the teens raised a total of $5,100.
“It took a couple of weeks to realize what I had done,” Bennet said recently. “It’s a really great feeling to know that other people are now passionate about something I cared so deeply about.”
The goal of the Jewish Teen Mentor Project is to support ambitious teenagers who want to plan large-scale community service projects. This year, seven mentors guided the seven young participants (membership in BBYO is not required) through their projects, via monthly or weekly phone calls. The adults also offered encouragement and tips if the teens encountered bumps along the way.
“I’m quite loyal to BBYO — that’s what started my journey to becoming a rabbi — so it wouldn’t have mattered what the scope of the project was, I would have said yes,” said Rabbi Mark Bloom of Congregation Beth Abraham in Oakland. “But I do like that they’re trying to get teens to work with people in the Jewish community, instead of seeing their programs as something totally separate. It’s a great way to connect different parts of our community.”
Mentors such as Bloom work with their teen for the duration of the school year. Bloom worked with Piedmont’s Zach Piser, the son of moyelim Joel and Jing Piser.
The teen mentor project was initiated two years ago by Roi Matalon, a sophomore at UCLA who started the program when he was a high school senior in Sunnyvale and active in BBYO.
“The one-to-one model is exactly why it works,” said Matalon, 19. “These mentors are fulfilling a role for teens that can’t be filled by any other person in a teen’s life. Parents, teachers, siblings, friends — no one else can give teens a real sense of meaning and ownership over the fact they are making a difference.”
The project is entirely youth-led, including the project coordinator. Samara Trilling, a junior at Palo Alto High School, volunteers her time to oversee the program and ensure all are working well together.
“The beauty of this project is that it’s absolutely run by teens and is an empowering experience for everybody involved,” said Trilling, 16.
Trilling, along with BBYO program director Jill Pottel, facilitates “checkpoint meetings” every six weeks. Sometimes only the teens attend; sometimes mentors and teens come together.
The sessions train teens in an array of areas, such as how to be effective on the phone, how to write press releases and how to apply for funding. Mentors learn how to offer support — without telling teens what to do.
Matalon hopes to grow the project beyond the Bay Area, connecting Jewish teenagers and Jewish communal leaders around the country. He’s applied for funding and is talking to BBYO’s international staff to see about expanding the initiative.
“It’s a great opportunity for teens to do something that is important to them — no one tells them what they have to do for their project, and so teens are able to engage with ideas and causes they care about,” said Jessica Trubowitch, director of legislative affairs and intergroup relations at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.
Trubowitch mentored Tal Arad of San Jose. Arad, whose parents are Israeli, planned a benefit concert for Friends of the Israel Defense Forces; popular Bay Area Israeli band Yarok headlined.
Bennet selected Free the Children after going to Ecuador last summer on a trip sponsored by the organization.
Birtu Belete planned a party and silent auction to raise money for Helping Hands for Haiti, a nonprofit focused on building and developing Haiti’s economy.
Madeline Kardos organized a benefit concert in January for a foundation that has summer camps for children with disabilities and health problems.
Ariella Neckritz, a 15-year-old sophomore at Lick Wilmerding High School in San Francisco, planned a Dance for the Future on April 10. The event raised $1,000 for her startup nonprofit, Youth Service for Change, which aims to connect teenagers with volunteer opportunities at Bay Area community organizations.
“The Jewish Teen Mentor Project is a great resource — having two motivated people rather than one is fabulous and only brings more passion to the table,” Neckritz said.
Two more events are upcoming: Julia Cinnamon’s interfaith volunteer day April 25; and Zach Piser’s May 1 movie night to raise money for the Berkeley Men’s Shelter.
“This project recognizes that youth have a great deal to offer and are capable of planning very significant events,” said BBYO alum Jason Porth, now deputy chief of staff for the president of San Francisco State University. Porth worked with Kardos, whom he said needed surprisingly little help while she planned a benefit concert.
“I think that as other teens see what their peers have been able to accomplish, they’ll want to try their hand as well and recognize it as great opportunity,” Porth added. “And I think as the number of teens increase, so too will the number of mentors. Because this is a great opportunity to work with very skilled, talented and committed youth.”
The Jewish Teen Mentor Project is accepting applications for the 2010-2011 school year. Applications are due May 14. To apply or for more information, contact Samara Trilling at email@example.com.