Youth-founded group gives teens opportunities to help others

Volunteers plant in a community garden as part of a VolunTEEN  Nation service project. 

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

When she was 12 years old, Simone Bernstein was looking for a chance to help others. Unfortunately, she found that adolescents and teens can’t always easily locate an outlet to do that. 

“There wasn’t a list for young people in the St. Louis area,” said Bernstein, of Clayton. “It became very difficult to find places that would accept youth volunteers.”

Bernstein, now 22, helped ease that problem by connecting young people to ways they can assist the community. She and her brother Jake founded VolunTEEN Nation in 2009. Three years later, they took the organization national, and today it has linked about 75,000 teens with opportunities to give time to causes they care about. She said the program has connected more than 1.1 million service hours for youth across the country.

Despite the group’s expanded mission, St. Louis is still the primary focus of the Bernsteins’ efforts. VolunTEEN Nation received a $4,500 Jewish Federation of St. Louis Innovation Grant in 2013 to help expand its mission of connecting teens with volunteer service projects. It was one of eight groups awarded funding of  $750 to $9,000 for community projects addressing Jewish education and engagement.


In addition to using funds for volunteer opportunities such as planting vegetable gardens (with produce going to local food banks), creating 150 emergency preparedness kits for people in town and making birthday bags for homeless youth, the group used grant funding for two larger initiatives. 

Bernstein’s group put together a series of seminars called “Teens Teach Tech,” which taps young people to assist senior citizens in learning about texting, using their electronic devices and apps, and Skypeing. Groups apply for the seminars, and VolunTEEN provides a guidebook and a microgrant of $250 to supply seminar materials, T-shirts for participants, fliers to promote the volunteer event and other materials. 

“We realized that there is frustration among the elderly population with technology,” Simone Bernstein said. “They want to learn but a lot of them don’t know where to start.”

The group also used the Federation grant to create “Basketball for All,” a program that paired youth with individuals on the autism spectrumfor basketball. A similar program for tennis is also available. 

Max Baker, 14, of Olivette, an incoming freshman at Ladue Horton Watkins High School, said he enjoyed volunteering for the basketball effort.

“It is a great program. It helps me and other kids to get involved, help people and do community service,” the Shaare Emeth congregant said.

Max’s mother, Debra Solomon Baker, also praised the initiative and said she likes to follow the organization’s Twitter feed.

“It is fantastic,” she said. “I don’t know if there is anything else that is that comprehensive for young people.”

Laura Pupillo, a teacher at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School, worked with Bernstein on a grant-funded project to help her fourth-grade students learn about poverty by making gift bags for the less fortunate.

“The kids really got a lot out of it,” Pupillo said. “She talked about the importance of teamwork and how we can all work together to solve real-world problems.”

She called the project a great educational opportunity for the children.

“I think that they understood that poverty is something that isn’t just experienced in Third World countries,” Pupillo said. “It could also be our neighbors that are going through a hard time and that even at a young age, you could do something to make your community stronger and help those in need.”

Funding community innovation

Mindee Fredman, director of special projects for the Jewish Federation, said Innovation Grants are intended to tap new ideas from creative minds in the community.

“We were looking for needs that weren’t being met and hoping that entrepreneurs and innovators in our community might be able to come up with something that wasn’t being done,” she said. “We wanted to fund these entrepreneurs and innovators.”

Fredman said the eight projects funded are all at different stages of development. “The funds were distributed in the fall, and some of them have completed their programs, are really successful and are starting to report back to us on the impact and outcomes they’ve achieved,” she said, adding that others are just starting.

Fredman said she hopes to see follow-up funding for some of the efforts in the second round if they’ve been successful.

The Federation is seeking applications for the second round of Innovation Grants. The deadline for applications is July 31 and winners will be announced by this fall (see sidebar).

“We want this to be an opportunity for people to experiment and test their ideas,” Freedman said. “If someone has an idea for a large-scale project, maybe they can take this opportunity to test it on a small-scale, see if it works and come back for more funding.”

Bernstein’s participation seems to be evidence of that concept in action. However, VolunTEEN Nation won’t be reapplying for the grant. Bernstein said she wants to give someone else a chance.

Meanwhile, she hopes her group may go international one day. Right now, about 8,100 organizations are listed on the VolunTEEN website.  But she said she will not lead the effort forever. She’ll be starting medical school next year and ultimately will leave the group to someone else as she pursues her career, possibly in public health.

But she’s glad she’s had the chance to help others make an impact. In an effort reminiscent of the Federation’s generosity, Bernstein’s group hopes to give out small grants as well – perhaps $5,000 this year in amounts of $100 to $250.

If that doesn’t seem like much, Bernstein recalls that she and her brother started VolunTEEN Nation on $48.

“When you give a young person a small amount of money, they can make a huge impact,” she said. 

For more information on VolunTEEN Nation, visit