Teens spend summer helping poor

BY JULIA RUBIN, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

This summer, Clayton High School freshman Charlie Katzman has big plans: a trip to Panama with his grandparents, summer camp in Pennsylvania and the chance to permanently alter the dynamics of one St. Louis neighborhood.

For the past week, Katzman and about 40 other teens have volunteered their time to a program known as SLICE (St. Louis Interfaith Community Explorations), organized by Faith Beyond Walls. Though still technically in its infancy, the two-year-old summer program is working to make big changes in disadvantaged communities in the Metro and Metro East areas.

“SLICE is a way to make service into a week-long project and really make a difference in a particular community,” Beth Damsgaard-Rodriguez, director of service projects and learning for Faith Beyond Walls, said. “We target underserved communities — the areas most in need of volunteers.”

Perhaps what is most unusual about SLICE, however, is its emphasis on interfaith communication. The program, which will run for four sessions this summer, draws youths from all faith groups. Each session will focus on improving a different St. Louis-area neighborhood. This year volunteers will represent various forms of Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

“Throughout the week, we encourage the kids to engage in interfaith dialogue about their faith groups and how their faith groups call them to service,” Damsgaard-Rodriguez stressed. “We spend so much time focusing on our differences and not enough on our similarities, and there are way more similarities.”

The first day of the program is a poverty simulation, aimed at showing the volunteers how a neighborhood can quickly become neglected when its poverty-stricken residents must spend all of their time and energy fighting for their own survival. Katzman’s mother, Hilary Skirboll, was one of the adult volunteers who accompanied the group; she called the simulation “incredibly powerful.”

Delia Rainey and her twin sister, Hannah, both eighth-graders at Ladue Middle School, also volunteered with SLICE. Like Katzman, Rainey said she was stunned to find out that there are actually various levels of poverty. For the rest of the week, the group went to work in the College Hill neighborhood in the city’s 3rd Ward.

“Cleaning up a place makes a big difference long term,” Rainey said. “The people in the neighborhood watched us, and by seeing us do little things they see they can help, too.

Tasks included weeding, cutting down branches, raking leaves, sweeping sidewalks and trimming bushes, Katzman said. The majority of the group’s work in College Hill centered on the beautification of the outside of the Tower Village senior services center. When the volunteers arrived, the building looked all but abandoned. Soon though, the group made an interesting discovery: Tower Village was once the site of the Jewish Center for the Aged.

“We were very surprised to see an Orthodox shul still in Tower Village. The threads of Jewish life are still there,” Rainey’s mother, Laura, who also accompanied the group, explained. That particular JCA facility was founded in 1906, and its ownership was turned over in the mid-1970s.

Marci Mayer Eisen is the coordinator for the Jewish Community Relations Council’s Bohm Social Justice Initiative. She helped bring SLICE to the Jewish community and joined the group for part of the week. Eisen said she observed the program last summer and decided it was something the JCRC should promote.

“What we want to teach these kids is that for those of us who live comfortable lives, it is our responsibility to do what we can to make the entire community a better place,” Eisen said.

SLICE will also be working in the Penrose, Gravois Park and Kinloch neighborhoods later this summer; Faith Beyond Walls has maintained a partnership with Kinloch for the past three years. Regardless of where the work is done, volunteers and adults alike agree that SLICE can have a major impact on struggling areas of St. Louis.

“It is really rewarding to clean up these places that nobody else even wants to look at,” Rainey said. “We are helping a community grow; that’s a big mitzvah.”

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