As part of their preparation for the “Project A.L.I.V.E. in the Community” day, teen activists designed their own service project posters.
April 30, 2009
There are various ways to measure how much was accomplished this past Sunday, April 19, by a group of teens operating out of the JCC of Central New Jersey, but what summed it up best was this number: 180.
That was the total of hours of community service the youngsters put in between 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., working on three different projects. They painted a bright and cheerful mural at Children’s Specialized Hospital in Fanwood, cleared and laid out a wood-chip path at the Plainfield Humane Society, and planted a flower garden at Clinton Elementary School in Plainfield.
They arrived back at the JCC in Scotch Plains hot and tired and thirsty but clearly pleased with themselves. “It felt really good to get that work done,” said Yaseena Otis, a 15-year-old from Plainfield who worked at the animal shelter. Twin brothers Zachary and Andrew Goldfarb of Westfield agreed that the day’s effort felt very worthwhile.
The day of service was organized by 18 high schoolers, nine from the JCC of Central New Jersey and nine who are part of the I Have a Dream program in Plainfield. Together they belong to Project A.L.I.V.E., an ongoing youth program run by Mallory Saks, the teen services director of the JCC, together with Larry Johnson, director of the Dream program in Plainfield.
The group brought in another 72 volunteers — siblings, classmates, and friends, and that was how they reached that big total of 180.
“Alone, each of you could have done one part of the work,” Johnson said, congratulating them at the closing ceremony. “Working together, you completed all three projects.” To add to their sense of achievement, the volunteers were shown a slide show of the day’s work, shot and compiled on the spot by volunteer Rachel Toporek.
The group was formed in November. The Dreamers, a group of ninth-graders selected back in first grade and given special mentoring and support since, have had other programs at the JCC over the years, but this is the first sustained partnership between the young people from the two communities.
Saks said she was inspired to organize the program by JCC executive director Barak Herman, who was part of such a program in his youth. Meeting once a week, the teens have been comparing notes on what it means to be an adolescent in their respective communities, dealing with issues like peer pressure, sexuality, violence, and substance abuse; they use games and various exercises to learn about their similarities and their differences.
That has involved sessions delving into touchy issues like racism and anti-Semitism and their perceptions of wealth and poverty. Saks said some of the process has been very tough for the youngsters. “When we asked them to say what stereotypes they’ve heard about each other — like about Jews or blacks — they really didn’t want to do it. They didn’t want to hurt each other. But when they came out with them and were able to discuss them, things became much more relaxed.”
Mallory Saks, middle row, left, and Larry Johnson, rear with cap, with the 18 members of Project A.L.I.V.E., the group that took part in a day of community service.
They also went into questions of wealth and poverty, and despite some obvious differences in family income levels, they discovered, Saks said, that almost all of them regarded themselves as ordinary — neither rich nor poor.
To put all they have learned into practice, they planned Sunday’s “Project ALIVE in the Community,” as part of the international Global Youth Service Day.
Saks said that really meant working from the foundation of “common ground” and mutual trust they have established, and putting to use the leadership skills they are developing. The group had to select their service projects, raise money to cover costs, design a flyer, and create an outreach program to draw in other people.
Speaking to the teens at the conclusion, as they cooled down with juice and snacks, Saks told them how she delighted she was. “This turned out better than we ever expected,” she said.
“We look forward to doing this again every year,” Johnson said.
Representatives from each of the three work groups spoke briefly about the impact of their work, its value to the organization they helped, and its significance to them.
Herman was delighted with them. “First of all — wow!” he said. “When you have a vision and you see it come together, there is nothing better.”
To tell them just how great they are, he drew on a movie everyone said they have seen, The Wizard of Oz. Just like the characters in that classic, he said, they had discovered they didn’t need the help of any magician. By building a community with tolerance and acceptance of one another, overcoming differences of race and religion, they had shown that “they have what it takes — all the courage, the heart, and the smarts.”