Volunteerism brings out the best in teens

The lazy days of summer will soon be upon us; a time when teenagers relish a break from the hectic pace of the school year. Their carefree lifestyle in the next few months is enviable, hanging out at the swimming pool with friends and playing video games all day long until their world becomes a virtual reality. On the flip side, some teens mix fun in the sun with volunteer work, including building a playground in a war ravaged neighborhood in Israel, teaching a seriously ill child how to shoot a bow and arrow for the first time at summer camp, or exercising homeless dogs at the Missouri Humane Society.

Unfairly, the media has labeled today’s youth as Generation Me, which is described as spoiled kids who are raised in an era of entitlement and expect everything to be handed to them, from movie tickets and new clothes to a college education and decent paying job after graduation.


Truth is, not every teenager is so narcissistic. On the contrary, their privileged lives allow the brightest of them to take seriously their own responsibility in the world, even at a young age.

“Community service is a definite trend for teens because volunteer work has become a part of school and personal development. Also, because of all of the media this generation is exposed to, they are much more aware of the world’s problems. There is a need to repair the world when the problems–environmental, human rights, etc–are staring them in the face,” says Jenny Wolkowitz, owner of Tips on Trips and Camps, a free consulting service that matches kids with overnight camps and teen programs (and a trustee of the Jewish Light).

Since most teenagers aren’t quite old enough for a high paying job yet — other than earning a few bucks making waffle fries at Chick-Fil-A — they are caught somewhere in between childhood and adulthood. It’s a crucial turning point in their maturity because while their parents still support them financially they have the unique opportunity to learn about different cultures, discover their own passions, and, ultimately, make a difference in the lives of others.

Sure, hundreds of school districts across the country now require community service to graduate and the Corporation for National and Community Service reports that service learning increases students’ attendance and grades. But that’s not what sparks some St Louis Jewish teens to continue doing mitzvahs after the hoopla of turning age 13.

Parkway North High School graduates Kyle Tons and Thea Emmons, both 18 and active in community service through the National Honor Society and youth groups, are making a difference in the lives of children every summer at Camp Rainbow, a week-long sleepover camp for children ages 6 to 13 who have had or are currently living with cancer or other blood-related disorders. The camp is held at Babler State Park and is composed of an all-volunteer staff of high-school age counselors.

“To see the smiles on the faces of these kids is the most rewarding part. The counselors are like their older brothers and sisters, and we work one on one with the campers to do swimming, arts and crafts, archery, music, and other activities” says Tons, wearing a white T-shirt from his volunteer service at the Special Olympics. “The campers have been through a lot more than I could imagine, and yet to see them fight with such emotion to overcome their disease and watch their will to have a good time at camp is inspiring to me.”

Tons has been a counselor for three summers. In the fall, he plans to study journalism at University of Missouri -Columbia.

To prove his point, Tons has started a search engine like Google called Goodsearch.com, and every time a user clicks on Camp Rainbow, Chesterfield, Mo. one cent is donated to the camp. He’s raised $56 since the beginning of the year.

His friend, Thea Emmons, who looks like a kid herself in braided pigtails, benefits as much from her summer experience as the campers do.

“Everyone has a shared goal to make the week the best experience for the campers,” says Emmons, an avid runner and bicyclist who is planning to attend Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “All the counselors and staff put their expectations and worries aside to focus on their campers.” Emmons also volunteers in the summer at Ranken Jordan Pediatric Specialty Hospital, St. Louis Crisis Nursery, and a sports camp at the St Louis Society for the Physically Disabled.

Obviously, social activism is a big part of these teens’ lives, including the jam-packed summer itinerary of Hannah Barg, who recently graduated from Ladue High School and has postponed going to Mount Holyoke College for a year so that she could use her artistic skills to help others in Israel.

Last summer she participated in the pluralistic art program at the Nesiya Institute in Israel where she worked with other American, Israeli, and Arab teenagers to build communities and grow spiritually.

“We worked with immigrant families at a boarding school and had the children draw pictures. We traced their drawings and made them into a mosaic mural and hung the artwork on the wall for everyone to see,” says Barg, who has been to Israel nine times in her 18 years. Her mother’s family lives in Jerusalem.

The culmination of her six-week trip to Israel was a personal multi-media project with swirling patterns to represent her perspective on how to build a community of people who have extremely different backgrounds and ideas. She continues to keep her commitment to Israel alive by interviewing and taking photos of Holocaust survivors in an attempt to educate her own generation about the war.

“Helping others in Israel teaches me to be a more tolerant person, which is a good quality to have when going into the real world,” says Barg. “If anything, the Israeli program taught me how to build community wherever I go and even with people who come from seemingly different backgrounds to find common ground and challenge people respectfully.”

Summers are never boring for Barg, who in 11th grade journeyed across the country on a bus called USY on Wheels, which takes community service projects on the road. In Scottsdale, Ariz., Barg created a carnival for people with special needs; in California she picked oranges and donated the fruit to food banks; in Louisville, she dressed as a clown and conducted a Shabbat service at a retirement facility.

“The summer is a wonderful time to volunteer because you are free of school and free of all the pressure, and you are doing it for the sake of others and not because you have to meet a requirement.”

Chip Bloch is another example of a teen who thinks big when it comes to social action. Last year the 14-year-old Crossroads College Preparatory School student spent part of his summer planting flowers, painting the walls and doors, and doing maintenance and laundry at Lydia House, which provides shelter for women and children who left abusive homes.

“I’ve always been concerned about other people. I will give up my seat for someone else on the bus. I also do social stuff at school to raise awareness of different things, including the environment, river cleanup, and human rights,” says Chip, who lives in University City where he helped plan his neighborhood National Night Out and volunteers in the local library reading program. “There’s always going to be injustice in the world. I can’t don a mask and a cape and fight crime in the super hero sense, but I can fight injustice in my own life.

“When I started getting older and more into my teenage years, I really started thinking on a national and global level. My favorite social action motto is ‘Think globally. Act locally,’ says Chip, who is a young man of his words.

“Mishegas of Motherhood” is the creation of Ellie S. Grossman, a St. Louis freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom who never stays home. If you know of a place that needs teen volunteers this summer, let me know, and I will help spread the word at www.mishegasofmotherhood.com.