Mitzvah magic set for kids with cancer, their families

Parents of children with cancer and other life-threatening diseases will get a small respite from their regular routines when Mitzvah Magic volunteers show up at Family House and Ronald McDonald House on Sunday, July 19.

Volunteers will throw a lunchtime picnic for families staying at Family House that day. Later that evening, another group of Mitzvah Magic volunteers will cook and serve dinner to families staying at Ronald McDonald House. Both San Francisco facilities were created to house and accommodate up to 10 families of seriously ill children receiving treatment at local hospitals.

Mitzvah Magic is a full day of volunteer opportunities — from helping families of children with serious illnesses and literacy projects to entertaining seniors, helping the homeless and building a house. Participants will assist in the Jewish and general communities in San Francisco and the Peninsula. The event is organized and sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's Women's Alliance.

"I can't stress how important meals like this are," said Steve Lawrence, executive director of Ronald McDonald House. "A lot of people want to know what they can do to support the families. Putting on a meal is one of the most helpful and nurturing things they could do. It's a great gift for the families. It's helpful to the children and to the parents. So often people forget about the parents. It's easy for parents to forget about taking care of themselves."

Cliff Berg, executive director at Family House, said: "Any activities that involve parents and their kids is good because the parents enjoy talking to other adults. They get to talk about other things besides hospital routines, chemotherapy and radiation. Hopefully, the parents will have some time in the sun at the picnic. It will be a nice respite."

Donna Efron, San Francisco co-chair along with Yvonne Goddard, said for the Family House picnic, the group will pack a lunch and head to a nearby park to eat, socialize and play games with the children.

Betty Denenberg, Mitzvah Magic program chair, said the activity is "community building. We have a total of 14 projects and we're hoping for 200 to 300 volunteers."

She said the program offers an opportunity for JCF volunteers as well as others in the community, including entire families, teenagers and children, to take part in a hands-on summer tzedakah project.

Denenberg said volunteers should sign up soon as some projects require only a limited number of people. The house-building program in the South Peninsula, for example, done in conjunction with the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity, requires only 10 volunteers.(Teenagers can participate too, if they have a parental waiver.) However, with additional volunteers, Denenberg said a second home may be undertaken.

"The more people who participate, the more good we can do," she said.

Two Mitzvah projects will address literacy, a focus of the Women's Alliance. Volunteers will read stories to children at the Tanforan Shopping Center in San Bruno from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. To make books come alive, they'll also act out parts of the stories with the children.

In the South Peninsula, volunteers can help Redwood City Library's Project Read literacy program by putting together mailings and preparing projects to turn kids on to books and to reading.

Some volunteers prefer to help out behind the scenes. The library project will provide that opportunity, as will JCF's Young Adult Division's two-tiered project in San Francisco. One group of volunteers will cook at Congregation Sherith Israel while another will deliver the meals to shelters.

Three programs are planned for Jewish seniors, according to Yvonne Goddard. One, a tea dance at the Jewish Home for Aged in San Francisco, will feature a live band.

"I'm envisioning it to be like your first dance with the boys lined up on one side of the room and the girls hoping to be asked to dance. I think it will be a blast," she said.