Confirmation trip inspires teens to continue community service work with the homeless

B’nai Amoona’s Assistant Director of Education and Youth Andrew Schwebel briefs students on expectations and behavior during the bus ride to Gateway 180 and during the congregation’s Purim carnival. Photos: Andrew Kerman

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

For a group of B’nai Amoona confirmation students, last year’s trip to Washington, D.C. was educational in more ways than one. Not only did the delegation see the nation’s capital, they made a number of new friends among the city’s homeless for whom the 10th graders made sandwiches.

“There was one guy who we gave a lunch to who was super funny,” recalled participant David Pruchno of one memorable jokester. “When the class met up after the project to discuss it he was part of our conversation. He came in and made us all laugh.”

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The experience stuck with the 17-year-old Frontenac resident who, like many, had sometimes felt apprehensive regarding the homeless. Some of the teens on the trip were surprised to learn St. Louis has individuals who lack basic shelter.

“It was really eye-opening to hand out lunches to them and talk to them and find out they were perfectly nice people who were just down on their luck,” recalled David, who attends Ladue Horton Watkins High School. “After I realized that was when I wanted to break that generalization and work with them.”

And that’s just what David and a number of his classmates did. Upon returning, the young man spearheaded a drive to partner his synagogue’s youth group with Gateway180, an area homeless shelter. Over the Martin Luther King Day weekend, 86 students traveled to the facility on North 19th Street to serve bag lunches, make bracelets with the children and apply a fresh coat of paint to the dining hall.

But the effort was no one-day excursion. Having paid a visit to Gateway, the students went on to invite children from the agency to B’nai Amoona for the congregation’s recent Purim festivities. Each of 28 eighth and 10th graders was paired with a “buddy” from the shelter whom they chaperoned for the day.

David initially worried that some of the students might feel burdened by their oversight duties.

“That was totally not the case at all,” he said. “Everyone had so much fun with their buddies. It really worked out.”

The feeling was mutual. Jen Lyke, development director of Gateway, said that she asked the children on the ride back what the best part of their experience was. The answer came loud and clear.

“The first thing they said was ‘we could tell that our buddies really cared about us and that they wanted to be our friends,'” she recalled. “The little kids said that the story of Purim ‘was so cool.’

Lyke said it was a cultural education for both sides.

“They were really excited to learn from the Jewish experience,” she said. “I thought that was really powerful, that the young people took it upon themselves to educate our kids about the holiday.”

David remembers being surprised by the children’s interest in the Jewish celebration. He said both he and his classmates had as good a time as the children themselves.

“I think we all agreed that it was a really great experience,” he said. “They were so excited to come to the carnival and it was great watching them do something that they might not have had the chance to do otherwise.”

Andy Schwebel, assistant director of education and youth at B’nai Amoona, said he felt the experience really alerted the synagogue’s teens to a serious social ill that exists in the community. He noted that the relationship, which has so far involved primarily the 6th- 12th grades, has been beneficial for both parties and will continue in the future.

“We have two nights set aside for the remainder of this year where we will go to the shelter with parents and serve dinner there,” he said. “We’re also looking at a summer opportunity to bring our campers to the shelter for a day of games.”

B’nai Amoona’s Rabbi Carnie Rose felt that the results of the Washington trip present a very teachable moment.

“It was just a fantastic opportunity which only reminds us that you never know when planting a very small seed can really lead to unbelievable efforts,” he said.

Rose also mentioned that the synagogue youth group’s choice wasn’t without sacrifice. By using charitable money to pay for food and transportation at the Purim event instead of the recommended United Synagogue Youth charities, they’ve forfeited any chance of being named youth group of the year.

“What I said to them is that they might not be the chapter of the year within the framework of United Synagogue Youth but in my mind they are the chapter of the decade or the millennium,” he said.

David, who is the synagogue’s USY vice-president for social action/tikkun olam, said one thing he’s learned is how much he has in common with the homeless youth he’s met.

“They’re nice kids who like the same things me and my friends like,” he said. “It’s really sad to see that they can’t have the same opportunities as many others. That’s part of why it was so exciting to see them go to the Purim carnival.”

He has a recommendation for people thinking about how to help their own community.

“I would say definitely work with homelessness because it’s very rewarding and you’ll see results,” he said.