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JCC teens make a difference through community service
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JCC teens make a difference through community service

Joining participants in the JCC’s Teen Action Service Corps at their concluding dinner are guest speaker JoyAnn Brand, far right, and JCC teen services director Mallory Saks, second from right. Photos by Elaine Durbach
Joining participants in the JCC’s Teen Action Service Corps at their concluding dinner are guest speaker JoyAnn Brand, far right, and JCC teen services director Mallory Saks, second from right. Photos by Elaine Durbach

Things didn’t start off easily for some of the teens taking part in JCC of Central New Jersey’s service program. As Julia Queller put it, “I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for.”

One girl arrived to look after a kid who clung to his mother’s leg screaming, “I don’t want another baby-sitter!”

Another encountered an autistic child reluctant to wear clothes or talk. One teen even had to intervene in an argument between two elderly people at a senior center.

But by the end of the five-month Teen Action Service Corps program, it was those very dips that gave meaning to the heights they achieved.

That kid who didn’t want another baby-sitter changed his mind about Haley Needle. When he saw the Scotch Plains freshman at his JCC preschool graduation, his face lit up — to her utter delight. “Things become easier and more rewarding the more time you put into them,” she said.

The autistic child learned to say “please” when he asked for something, and to say “daddy.”

“I got chills when I heard that,” declared Jenna Holtzman, a sophomore from Berkley Heights. “I’ve spent my life helping people — it’s my passion — but I’ve never felt such a sense of accomplishment.”

The seniors might not have been about to change, but Eli Silverstein and Evan Lubranski, two 10th-graders from Scotch Plains, said they still felt they made a difference working at the assisted-living residence, helping out with parties and games, and “hanging out” with the residents.

The teens described their experiences at the June 17 dinner marking the end of this year’s program. Mallory Saks, teen services director at the JCC, launched the program in December. It offered the participants a structured, supported way to volunteer — for at least 30 hours — for the project of their choice. In addition to their service, they met once a month for seminars led by professionals, on topics like the value of volunteering, managing one’s time and money, and how to communicate effectively.

They also went on social action trips to sites in Union County and New York City.

Seth Schlisserman, a Scotch Plains 10th-grader, drew on his own experiences dealing with type 1 diabetes to help a 10-year-old dealing with the same illness. When the boy was feeling well, they often shot hoops together; on days when his energy level was lower, they played chess. Seth was hugely impressed by how the youngster was handling his situation, but he was also able to add guidance and “let him know he’s not the only one in the world” dealing with the disease.

A number of the teens tutored children, either at the JCC or at their homes. Some had a tougher time than others, working with kids who would rather be playing or who had trouble concentrating. All the TASC volunteers reported impressive progress — both in terms of their students’ academic improvement and in the bonds that developed between them.

Lee Goldberger, a Westfield ninth-grader, served as a shadow for a youngster in a basketball program, in addition to other projects. He said, “Just knowing someone was there for him and on his side” made a difference to the boy’s game and to the team dynamics.

Lee also worked with senior citizens. Being in TASC, he said, taught him that “everyone counts and should be treated with respect,” and something else: “You never know — one day I might be the one who needs help.”

Satisfaction of serving

The guest speaker at the June 17 event was JoyAnn Brand, associate director of professional development services with the JCCs of North America. Introducing her and congratulating this “pilot group,” Central JCC executive director Barak Hermann spoke of the importance of volunteering. He pointed to the thousands of hours the parents of many of those teens have given to the JCC, to federation, and to their synagogues, and how crucial such giving is to the community and to creating a balanced life.

“One day, this building — or others like it in other places — will be your responsibility, and it will be up to you to help maintain Jewish identity,” he told the teens.

Using images from pop culture, Brand challenged the teens and their parents to identify ways every kind of person can make a contribution. “You have the ability to have an impact — on the work you do and on one another,” she said. She urged the teens to bear that in mind over the summer and to look for opportunities to “inspire someone else’s Jewish journey, whether it’s at the mall, or on Facebook, or wherever.”

By the end of the evening, it was clear that Saks was sharing the parents’ pride in their children. “Even after working with them all along, I didn’t realize how much they’ve done,” she said. “I don’t think they did either. Summing it up like this really showed them what they achieved.”

The next TASC program begins in September, and Saks said she hopes that most of the 19 “pilot” participants will be back, in addition to many more new recruits. As Hermann told the dinner crowd, within a few years, they could have a corps of hundreds of potential “future leaders” experienced in the satisfaction of serving their community.

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