Teens pitch in through JFCS to teach kids to read

Helping young children, he emphasized, is probably the most important volunteer work he can do. In fact, Elliot has recruited his younger brother and several school friends to join the program.

"Second grade is a pivotal year in terms of reading and language development. Helping kids at this point is major — you can make such a difference in their lives. If children get it then, they are on their way."

Teens like Elliot illustrate a national trend. Volunteerism among young people is on the rise. The number of non-institutionalized youth from ages 12 to 17 who engaged in volunteer work increased from 12.4 million in 1992 to 13.3 million in 1995, according to a 1996 survey by the Independent Sector, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit leadership forum. A 1999 survey by the same group estimates that 46 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds volunteered an average of three hours in 1998, up from 38 percent in 1995.

Daniel Wolf-Root, 18, also a senior at Maria Carrillo, has also been volunteering with the program for three years. He tutors young bilingual students at Bellevue Elementary. After attending the training session, Daniel jumped right in. He supplements his ongoing commitment to the program by collaborating with five other local program participants who meet to share stories and learn from each other's experiences.

"Reading is a very important skill in second grade," Daniel said. "At the beginning of the year, the students' comprehension skills were really weak and we worked really hard together. When the kids start to read very well and then can explain exactly what is going on in the story, you know all the work is worthwhile. It is great to see how far they have come."

When Daniel leaves home next fall for the University of Chicago, he will leave behind his current crop of students, but he hopes to continue his volunteer work with children at a satellite school near the campus.

"It's a lot of fun working with children," he said. "Kids have such interesting perspectives and ideas that people my own age just wouldn't think of. Also, learning how to explain something clearly and cogently to someone else really helps to reinforce the ideas in your own mind."

Elliot agrees. "Volunteering is a great way to reach out beyond yourself and to have a relationship with a younger student. For me, it's a way to give back the good grace I have received."

Both Elliot and Daniel will be honored for their volunteer work at JFCS Sonoma's fourth annual Valley of the Moon event on June 4 at the Landmark Winery. The event celebrates JFCS' 10th anniversary in Sonoma County.

Amy Cohen, who coordinates Teens Take Action through JFCS' Parents Place, offered some perspective on the rise of volunteerism among youth.

"Kids today are aware that there is a world out there that extends far beyond their immediate needs and desires," she said. "Kids respond when we reach out and invite them in to these activities; they feel needed and special and are ready to commit to the volunteer activity they have chosen."

In San Francisco, Teens Take Action runs a project to bring Shabbat to elderly Bay Area residents. Seventh- and eighth-grade b'nai mitzvah students in the Shabbat Visitors Group go to nursing homes on Friday afternoons to celebrate Shabbat with residents.

"I needed a bat mitzvah tzedakah project and I think I found the Teens Take Action brochure as I was cleaning up my room," said 13-year-old Hannah Dreier, an eighth-grader at Horace Mann School in San Francisco.

"It's really fun to talk to seniors about where they grew up, especially since often they feel no one else will really listen to what they are saying. Sometimes we do most of the talking — about ourselves, about San Francisco and about current stuff. During one visit, I told one woman about computers and the Internet and she did not believe me at first. Sometimes we act as their connection to the world outside."

Laura Herzfeld, a 13-year-old in the seventh grade at Brandeis Hillel Day School, agrees. Laura knew she wanted to work with people for her bat mitzvah project, and her mom suggested contacting JFCS. During the visits to seniors, her group may put on a short skit, lead a brief Shabbat service and sings songs with residents.

"Sometimes it is kind of hard because the older people we are visiting may not know what is going on. But it is fun and we have become friends and we all agreed that we will keep doing this because we like it so much," said Laura.

Madeleine Katz, a13-year-old who is in the seventh grade at The San Francisco School, found the group through her rabbi and discovered she already knew some other participants.

"Seniors love to talk about their families and children, and I think they really enjoy seeing us," she said. "Also, we are really leaders of the program. Our group meets to strategize together."

Recently, Madeleine, Laura and another group member, Jessica Wiggins, decided on their own to fix up one of the rooms at a local homeless shelter they had visited during a separate Teens Take Action event. Their first fund-raising attempt, a bake sale, netted $100.

Hannah thinks that the volunteer experience is an important and rewarding one.

"You can look back over your week and say, 'Well, I watched TV or walked to school,' but then there's this and you say, 'Hey! I talked with that older person and they smiled and I have such cool stories.' You know that you were able to make such a difference in people's lives."

This summer, Teens Take Action will run a weeklong community service program called IMPACT (Idealists Motivating Peers to Act for Community Today). The program will run half-days from June 12 to 16. For information, call (415) 563-0335 ext. 130.

For more information about JFCS' Readers in the Schools program in Sonoma County, call (707) 571-8131.

For JFCS' Readers in the Schools in Marin County, call (415) 491-7960.