Taking a team approach to a mitzvah project

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David Baugher

For five local families it all started out as an informal discussion during a baseball game – but it certainly wouldn’t end there.

“All of the moms were sitting on the bench talking, asking, ‘What are you going to do for a project?'” recalls one of them, Linda Wielansky of Ladue. “It really sounded like all of the boys wanted to do the same type of project and so we decided it would be an awesome thing if the kids just did it together.”

As Wielansky searched online for an appropriate target organization, she found it was slow going. There were many worthy causes but none quite fit what she and her fellow mothers were looking for – an organization that helped children and had a focus on sports.

“All of these boys are exceedingly athletic,” she said. “They all play sports and they just couldn’t imagine that there were kids out there that couldn’t do what they loved because they couldn’t afford it.”

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That’s when a recommendation from the St. Louis Sports Commission brought Lift for Life Gym into the picture. Lift for Life, a not-for-profit originally started by area resident Marshall Cohen as a side business to his candy store, helps underprivileged children by giving them a place to work out and hang out on the city’s North Side. It was also just what Wielansky and the other mothers were searching for.

“We really were moved by what Marshall had put together there with the gym, the staff and all the dedication,” said Kim Gellman, a Clayton mom. “You could see the impact on the kids.”

It wasn’t just Lift for Life children who would eventually be impacted, however. It became clear that the participating families were seeing a benefit from the organization as well.

“It’s just amazing how lucky I am just to have a bed and a house and a functional family,” said Kim’s son Justin Gellman, 13. “I take all that stuff for granted but I shouldn’t.”

That was the major learning component to the project. By seeing what many children didn’t have youngsters were exposed to experiences that were new to them.

“From an awareness perspective, I think Jake probably saw some things that he hadn’t seen in the previous years of his life. That’s a good thing,” said Jeff Bensky, father of Jake, 13. “It’s a good character builder. It helps him see that there are things outside of his zip code that are different.”

The project itself did a great deal for Lift for Life as well. The families donated nearly $9,000 to the gym and its educational sister project, the Lift for Life Academy. The bar mitzvahs also served meals to dozens of gym kids each month with food donated by their families. Loads of sporting goods from baseball bats and drill cones to shin guards and cleats were also given to the gym.

“It took our breath away as far as the volunteer hours that have been put into the project,” said Susan Kelter, community relations and volunteer manager for Lift for Life. “This has made a tremendous difference in the lives of the children when it comes to us keeping our gym doors open and supplying the children with healthy food.”

Kelter, who, like Cohen and the children, is Jewish, said that the children’s dedication is a testament to the commitment of the parents and the community to giving.

“I think it was pretty cool that the kids picked up on having a classroom and all of these nice things whereas these kids don’t,” she said. “It’s amazing how children today are learning about tzedakah and philanthropy so young. It’s very touching when you see a hungry child in line at the gym who is depending on that meal not to go to bed hungry at night.”

The effort didn’t end there. A special side project brought in students from Ladue Horton Watkins High School to produce and edit two brief promotional videos for the gym’s website and for marketing purposes.

The students, who are Jewish themselves, got a special kick out of the project.

“They all said, I wish we’d have done something like this for our bar mitzvahs,” said Linda Wielansky, who noted the multigenerational aspect of the effort.

Not only is it multigenerational, it’s also multi-congregational. The Gellmans, Benskys and Browns attend Central Reform Congregation while the Coulters and Wielanskys go to Temple Israel. Their children’s common bond comes from the Chesterfield Bulldogs, the baseball team all five play on.

Meanwhile, the project has become a family affair for the many of them. Family members often accompany one another during visits to the gym and some, like Gellman’s 11-year old younger brother Cameron who donated leftover books from a school book drive in addition to his own used computer, have taken an active role. His mother, who has since joined a Lift for Life fundraising committee and may soon become a part of the organization’s board, said her younger son is thinking of making the organization his own bar mitzvah project when the time comes.

The key to the campaign’s success seems to be that those involved view it as a labor of love.

“I’m really proud of him,” said Andy Brown of Clayton, whose son Jake is one of the five participants. “Initially, it started out as something they were going to do as part of a bar mitzvah community service project and it quickly took on a life of its own. I don’t think he even thinks of it as any kind of work. He just loves going down there and spending time with the kids.”

Jake Brown needs no prodding to confirm that fact.

“It makes me feel good. It makes me feel like I’m giving back to my community,” said the Wydown Middle School student. “By offering my services, I feel like I’m making a difference in these kids’ lives.”

Fellow participant Coulter agrees, noting that he’s learned a valuable lesson from the experience.

“I enjoyed hanging out with the kids, becoming friends and getting to know them,” said the 13-year-old who will enter Northeast Middle School’s eighth grade this year. “It taught me how grateful I am to be in a good school. Now I see that there are people that have less than I do.”