Isha Clarke, 17, a founding member of Youth Vs. Apocalypse, is one of the 2020 Tikkun Olam Award winners. (Photo/Nikki Ritcher)
Isha Clarke, 17, a founding member of Youth Vs. Apocalypse, is one of the 2020 Tikkun Olam Award winners. (Photo/Nikki Ritcher)

Prestigious Diller Tikkun Olam awards for 3 Bay Area teens

Juggling a soccer ball to raise money to fight childhood cancer. Lobbying federal lawmakers to support youth-led issues. Bringing to light climate injustices that affect low-income communities of color. 

These are the achievements of three Bay Area teens, who were part of a wider group of recently named winners of 2020 Tikkun Olam Awards from the S.F.-based Helen Diller Family Foundation. 

Each year the nonprofit recognizes a cohort of teens “for exceptional leadership and engagement in initiatives making the world a better place.” Awardees from around the country, five from California and 10 from other states, are given $36,000 each, either for their respective projects or to help further their education.

One of the Bay Area teens, Hollis Belger, 15, used her love of soccer to help pediatric cancer patients. The rising junior at Redwood High School in Larkspur has been juggling soccer balls since 2013 to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a nonprofit that offers free health care for children with cancer.

Through an organization she founded, Juggling for Jude, Belger has raised more than $450,000 for the hospital over the last seven years. 

Her record for soccer-ball juggling? A whopping 4,202 juggles in about 44 minutes.

 

“These kids are just like me,” Belger told J., referring to the patients at St. Jude in Memphis, Tennessee, where she has traveled and developed relationships with the children. “They hang out with their friends. They play sports.”

Belger said her ultimate goal is to raise $1 million for the hospital. “I want to juggle as best as I can until the survival rates are 100 percent,” she said. “I just want to keep raising money until no child has to worry about cancer.”

Hollis Belger
Hollis Belger

Belger said she was inspired to start her philanthropic efforts after learning about the themes of giving in Judaism. 

“I’ve been raised with that,” she said. “I’m a proud Jew. I love that part of my life.” Belger said she’ll use the $36,000 award for future college expenses and donations to St. Jude.

Another awardee, Jonah Gottlieb, 18, has made it his goal, in his own words, “to make sure people that care about kids are voting like they care about kids.”

Gottlieb, of Petaluma, is a co-founder of the National Children’s Campaign, an organization launched in July 2019 that promotes climate change-related policy, youth activism and, most recently, police and criminal justice reform. The organization has been at the center of recent environmental protests; Gottlieb co-sponsored the White House Climate Strike along with youth activist Greta Thunberg in September 2019. During that campaign, Gottlieb met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

Jonah Gottlieb
Jonah Gottlieb

For Gottlieb, the push for youth-focused activism started during the destructive 2017 California wildfire season. Gottlieb had friends from Santa Rosa who took refuge with him and his family during the fires.

“[It was] the first time I’d been hit with a tangible example of the climate crisis,” Gottlieb said. “I got frustrated with the government inaction.” 

More recently, Gottlieb was planning a bus tour in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to encourage young adults to vote. Though his organization had to cancel the event due to Covid-19, organizers now are aiming for a virtual version of the tour starting in July. 

Gottlieb said he’ll be using his award money for tuition this fall at UC Berkeley, where he plans to study political science and environmental policy. 

Isha Clarke, 17, another Bay Area winner, has been paving the way for regional youth in the battle for environmental justice. 

The Oakland resident is a founding member of Youth Vs. Apocalypse, a grassroots campaign that has its roots in a 2015 movement to prevent the construction of a coal-shipping terminal in West Oakland. She has since become a local leader in exposing and protesting environmental injustices that disproportionately affect low-income communities of color. Last December, she led a protest, along with other Jewish youth, against BlackRock, a huge asset-management company that has extensive investments in fossil fuels.

Recently, Clarke created an online campaign, “No One Is Disposable,” in response to the killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police, and the ensuing demonstrations across the nation. “Our society does not value human life, and it views people as disposable,” Clarke told J. “Our fight is against the notion that people are disposable, [and that’s] usually low-income communities of color and indigenous communities.”

For Juneteenth, a June 19 observance that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, Clarke helped organize an event in West Oakland with the group Black Youth for the People’s Liberation.

A recent high school graduate, Clarke said her plan is to take a gap year to remain focused on her activism, then head to the historically black college Howard University in Washington, D.C. She’ll use the award money for tuition costs.

Clarke said her activism is rooted in her grandfather’s own efforts in the area of child welfare, civil rights and anti-war demonstrations. “He would tell me stories about getting arrested in Guatemala,” she said. “Just different stuff like that. A lot of my roots in social justice are connected to my Jewish identity. My grandpa was just so involved.”

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler is a staff writer at J. You can reach him at gabriel@jweekly.com and follow him on Twitter @ggreschler.