Diller Teen award winners use water polo, poetry to help others

What do water polo and slam poetry have in common? They helped two Bay Area girls win prestigious Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards this year.

In all, 10 U.S. teens were recognized for their volunteerism with $36,000 awards — marking the first time in the awards’ seven-year history that they were made available to teens outside California.

Skylar Dorosin of Palo Alto, one of the winners, was recognized for her work teaching water polo and swimming to girls from low-income communities on the Peninsula.

Students surround Talia Young (holding paper) at a poetry slam she organized.

Talia Young of Lafayette, the other local winner, spent the past year teaching San Francisco high school students poetry, aiming to break down stereotypes and build confidence.

They and the eight other winners were chosen “in recognition of their leadership, innovation and commitment to making the world a better place,” the Helen Diller Family Foundation said in announcing the awards in late June. The prize can be used to further the teens’ philanthropic projects or go to their education.

Dorosin, an avid swimmer, started playing water polo when she turned 13. She wanted to join her passion for the water with the perks of being part of a team.

After a tough loss to a team from Commerce, a working-class city in Los Angeles County, Dorosin became curious about how the city had come to have such a talented squad. After looking into it, she discovered that Commerce funded a water polo program for its residents.

That inspired Dorosin, 18, to set up a similar program in the Bay Area. One of the first things she did was team up with Commerce native and four-time Olympian Brenda Villa, a water polo superstar at Stanford (2002 national player of the year) and now a high school coach in Palo Alto.

Dorosin’s “Project 2020” started in 2009 and has grown from 10 girls to more than 250. There are clinics and weeklong camps, and a partnership with the East Palo Alto YMCA, plus a team that is trained by Dorosin and other volunteer coaches.

“Girls come in the first week and they won’t want to take off their towel, they won’t want to take off their clothes, they’ll be really timid to get the water,” said Dorosin, who played water polo as a freshman at Stanford University last year but has decided to leave the team. “But by the end of the week they’ll come running in and you can so obviously see their self-confidence increasing.”

The biggest challenge has been finding pool space, Dorosin said, adding that her ultimate goal is to raise enough funds to build Project 2020 its own facility. For now, Dorosin has been able to raise enough money to cover the costs of the program; she also receives equipment donations.

Skylar Dorosin and two Project 2020 participants

“Everybody knows the impact of sports,” said Dorosin.

Young, meanwhile, knows the impact of poetry and the spoken word. The 2013 graduate of San Francisco’s Jewish Community High School of the Bay got involved with the slam poetry scene two years ago.

“I had a lot to say, but I didn’t necessarily know how to say it,” Young said. “When I found spoken word, it really gave me a way to have a voice.”

That led her to launch “Looking for Home,” a poetry club for students at San Francisco high schools that she ran during the 2012-13 school year. Young worked with students from five schools, holding weekly classes that culminated in a poetry showcase.

“The project really depended on other people for its success, which was what really scared me,” said Young, who is off to Macalaster College in St. Paul, Minn. “What I was trying to build wasn’t physical. It was like building people, building community.”

From 2007 to 2012, five Diller Teen awards per year were given to California residents. The program expanded this year, adding five more awards for teens outside the state.

In addition to Dorosin and Young, the 2013 California winners are Ellie Dubin, 17, of Beverly Hills, for a musical theater program; Jordan Elist, 18, of Beverly Hills, for raising money for food pantries; and Ido Keder, 17, of West Hills, for an autism awareness initiative.

The other winners are Jake Bernstein, 19, of St. Louis, for connecting youth to volunteer opportunities; Ben Hirschfeld, 19, of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., for a fund to replace kerosene lamps with solar lanterns; Talia Leman, 18, of Waukee, Iowa, for a website that helps youth launch community service projects; Nick Lowinger, 15, of Cranston, R.I., for a foundation that donates new shoes to children in homeless shelters; and Max Wallack, 17, of Natick, Mass., for a nonprofit that creates, collects and distributes puzzles to people with Alzheimer’s.

For more information, or to apply or nominate someone for a 2014 award, visit www.dillerteenawards.org.

Arno Rosenfeld
Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld is a reporter at the Forward. He is a former J. intern and has worked as a correspondent for JTA and The Times of Israel.