Two Bay Area high school students were among the 15 Jewish teens from across the nation selected recently to receive one of this year’s $36,000 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards.
Joshua Toch, 18, of Morgan Hill was recognized for his creation of Mind Before Mouth, an anti-bullying organization that uses public speaking as a means of creating awareness.
Tyler Barbee, 16, of Mill Valley, the other local recipient, helped launch baseball and basketball teams for children with special needs in Marin County.
Adam Weisberg, director of Diller Teen Initiatives, said that what set the two Bay Area recipients apart was not just their projects but also the leadership skills they showed and how they leveraged their efforts.
In Toch’s case, Mind Before Mouth grew out of a speech he gave at a Rotary Club public speaking competition. He said he was flooded with positive feedback after talking about being bullied for his disability, cerebral palsy, and wanted to build on that experience.
He has since recruited a team of other teens to discuss their experiences — either bullying or being bullied — at schools, YMCAs and other venues. A point of pride for Toch is that all of the participants are teenagers, which allows audiences to hear the message more easily.
“Because we’re all young and we’re all teenagers and we work with schools and school districts, it’s kind of hard for [school officials and audiences] to take us seriously at first,” he explained. “[But] having everyone be teenagers is a lot more impactful than having adults talk about not bullying.”
Toch’s organization has six or so dedicated speakers and works with additional volunteers at each venue. True to his belief in the power of high school students speaking to their peers, Toch, who is heading to U.C. Berkeley in the fall, plans to turn over the reins to younger members next year.
Since running the organization doesn’t involve much overhead, Toch said he plans to share his $36,000 prize with his fellow speakers to use for their education.
Barbee’s project was inspired by his older brother, who has autism. Growing up, Barbee saw his brother struggle in social situations, so about five years ago, he helped form a local chapter of Challenger League baseball, a division within Little League that facilitates the participation of kids with special needs.
There are now three Challenger League chapters in Marin that Barbee helped set up, and he also formed a Challenger basketball team. The youth involved, ranging in age from 6 to 20, are paired with “buddies” — generally high school and middle school athletes — who assist them.
The program allows participants to experience teamwork, independence and self-confidence. And it’s not only great for the kids, who learn how to play sports and socialize, but also for the buddies, Barbee noted. “They get just as much out of it,” he said.
Barbee, who will be a senior at Mill Valley’s Tamalpais High School in the fall, said the Tikkun Olam Award will free him to work more on developing the program, since he won’t be as bogged down with fundraising. He said he wants to start a similar program wherever he ends up in college, but also is looking to find a protégé to run the Marin program after he departs.
The Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards have been around for eight years, but this was only the second time they were available to teens outside of California.
For six years, awards were given to five teens within the state, but last year, an additional five awards were handed out to national applicants. Following the success of that expansion, the Helen Diller Family Foundation — a supporting foundation of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation — decided to double the number of national awards to 10 this year.
In addition to Toch and Barbee, the other in-state winners were Yaniv Sadka, 18, of Beverly Hills (Teens Curing Cancer, fundraising for pediatric cancer research), Morgan Davidson, 16, of Woodland Hills (Ambassadors for Hope Club, raising awareness about blood cancers) and Jacob Gardenswartz, 18, of San Diego (Theater of Peace, interactive anti-bullying performances).
A celebratory luncheon honoring the teens will be held in San Francisco on Aug. 25. In addition, for the first time, Diller Teen officials have organized a mini-Shabbaton so the winners can network with one another.
The 2014 recipients were selected by committees of educators and community leaders from across the country. Candidates between 13 and 19 completed a detailed application describing their projects, goals, inspirations and 9challenges, fundraising tactics and ultimate accomplishments.
With $540,000 given to the 15 winners this year, $1.98 million has been awarded to teens since the awards began. Nominations for the 2015 awards will open in September; for more information, visit www.dillerteenawards.org.